God dreams in us

This piece will be published shortly in an Advent devotion booklet written by leaders of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. At the end of November, visit http://www.easternsynod.org to download your copy

” … we were like those who dream” (Psalm 126:1)

Especially at this time of year, it’s like we journey in a dreamworld. Coloured lights and candles burning speckle the long and dark nights. Symbols of the season evoke in us latent memory and soft sentiment. Are we dreaming, or what?

As Christians, we carry the mantle of God’s dreamers. This is our heritage — the dreams of the prophets and those who spoke God’s restorative vision to a people in exile, a people depressed, discouraged, downcast.

To this day and age. If God could inspire Jacob in the desert with a dream of a ladder reaching down from heaven (Genesis 28:10-17), God can dream in us. If God could give guidance to Joseph wondering what to do with Mary (Matthew 1:18-25), then God can dream in us.

In the 20th century Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”, and ignited a vision for justice towards an uncertain future. A generation later, (the first African-American) President Barak Obama, tantalized a nation, and the world, with his eloquent words of hope. Today, Malala Yousafzai inspires us to support education for women, in a dark and conflict-ridden world.

God’s dreams of a just and peaceful kingdom are born in the visions of the people of God, and in the heart of each child of God. In the end, it is not ‘my’ dream, maybe not even ‘our’ dream alone; it starts with God’s dream — when the wolf shall live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6;65:25), and swords will be beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4).

Open our hearts, God of justice and truth, to dream your dreams. And give us courage, to live them out. Amen.

Spelling the Word

We are in the season of gift-giving. But during Christmas we must also be able to receive those gifts given to us. And receiving that gift, celebrating it, using it – can be just as challenging if not more so than giving.

The question throughout Advent – the four weeks of preparation before Christmas – challenged us to watch and wait, to let go and forgive, to shed those distractions of our lives, to give of ourselves for the sake of others. These were the disciplines of Advent.

But now the gift of Christ is given to us. The Gospel states that the light of the world has come; the light has shone in the darkness, a light no darkness can overcome. This is the gift of God, the life of Jesus, to the world (John 1:3-5)

How shall we receive this most precious gift? And how does this gift make a positive difference in our lives shrouded in darkness?

The answer may lie in how well you can spell. How’s your spelling? I learned how to spell by doing reps; I had to practice spelling a word. I also learned how to spell by getting beyond the disappointment of the mistakes, mistakes which were bound to happen no matter how good I was at spelling.

The famous artist, Rembrandt (1606-1669), painted the “Holy Family” in the 17th century. In the painting, he portrays the nativity as if it were an event taking place in 17th century Holland. The attire and furnishings are what one would find in a typical Dutch home from Rembrandt’s own day.

In addition to Joseph standing and an angel hovering in the background, Mary is seated at the centre of the painting with an opened, well-thumbed book, presumably the Bible, held open by her left hand. Her right hand, on the top of a rocking cradle, has pulled aside a covering to reveal a soundly sleeping Jesus. Mary’s head is turned from the book to gaze upon the infant.

Whether or not Rembrandt intended it, the painting represents different ways to encounter and understand the ‘word of God’:

On the one hand, there are the Scriptures, the book that Mary has been reading as Jesus sleeps and Joseph works in the background. The Word of God is to be found in the Bible. We read the words and find we are addressed by the Word of God. We read them again and again – like learning how to spell. That is why the book is well-thumbed. Rembrandt pictures Mary as one who knows well the word of God and who ponders it in her heart.

But she does not ponder the page alone. She also ponders the infant beside her, “the Word made flesh”, rather than the Word made paper and ink. The Word is a blood-warmed, breath-enlivened human sleeping beside his mother.

I have the impression looking at this painting that when Mary returns to her reading, she will understand what she reads at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the Word made flesh. At the same time, when she tends to the child, she will understand the child at a greater depth because she has encountered the Word through the words in the book. Back and forth between Word made flesh and Word through words is the pattern suggested by Rembrandt’s painting.

This is how we learn to ‘spell’ our baptism in Christ — learning not only the words in the Bible, but more importantly for us Christians living in the 21st century, learning to know the living Christ in our hearts and in others and in the world today. “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14).

How do we live Christ in the world today? How do we tend to the Christ child in our midst?

Let the light be seen! Let the good gift of Christ within us shine forth anew, for the world to see! Those words are spoken at every baptism to the baptized: “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven!” (Matthew 5:16). The light wasn’t meant to be hidden under a bushel, but put on a lampstand (Matthew 5:15)!

You hold the light of Christ in your heart. There is no justification to hide it. There is some good there that the world so desperately needs. And you have it!

A royal priesthood we are! A holy nation! God’s own people! In order that we might proclaim Christ (1Peter 2:9). Martin Luther argued for the ‘priesthood of believers’. In other words, we all receive the grace of God for ministry, not just the religious professionals. That is why the baptized receives a crown – we are all now princes and princesses in the kingdom of God.

How do we live out our priesthood?

Another artist, perhaps not as well known, lived during the same time as Rembrandt. George Herbert’s life (1593-1633) overlapped with Rembrandt’s. Although the poet and painter may never have met or even known of each other’s work, I find it interesting to consider Rembrandt’s “Holy Family” in light of some lines from Herbert’s poem that resonate with the first chapter of John’s Gospel: “We say amiss, this or that is; Thy word is all, if we could spell.”

How do we ‘spell’ the Word of God? Listen to a portion of a poem written by Thomas Troeger (in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 1, WJK Press, Louisville, 2010, p.189-193):

“How do you spell the word? /Where do you search and look – /Amidst the chaos and cries you’ve heard /Or in a well-thumbed book? /Hold back the swift reply, /The pious, worn cliché … /Instead, let all you do /Embody truth and grace, /And you will spell the word anew /In every time and every place.”

I must admit I had to practice a few times spelling ‘Kirubakaran’ before getting it right. Every name has meaning – this is also something we learn from the Christmas story: starting with the name of the newborn Messiah, Jesus – Immanuel, God is with us – the salvation of the world (Matthew 1:18/Isaiah 7:14). I was pleased when you told me that the name Roselyn takes, in your native language, means literally – “Christ who gives mercy.”

Today, as Rose is baptized, she receives the great gift of Christ in her life. May she grow to know, and live out, this mercy, forgiveness and grace.

May we all spell the word anew in every time and every place.

A ‘fussy’ Christmas?

I was stunned, as I am sure many were, to see photos last week of snow-covered Bethlehem. They say it was, for that Mediterranean region, the first such weather event in over a century.

And over the past century, biblical scholars have criticized Hallmark and other popular artists for depicting these snow covered fields around Bethlehem with sheep softly grazing; ‘they are not being historically or factually accurate’ we critically-minded people complained.

We were critical of such romanticized attempts to depict a ‘perfect’ Christmas from the Canadian perspective. Isn’t it true, though? In the weeks before Christmas, don’t we invest a great deal of time and energy trying to achieve that picture-perfect Christmas? How can you have Christmas without snow, after all?

We ramp up our expectations. Just like they do with movie trailers. Months before its theatre and weeks before its home release, we watch these 60 second teasers, which are designed to wet our appetite and raise our expectations to the awesomeness of the next super-hero, blockbuster flick.

Should we be surprised, then, when we are disappointed? Our expectations have been managed. Marketing gurus have effectively created an appetite, a need. The result: sadness. Many at Christmas feel an emptiness that their lives and families prevent them from having the sort of Christmas they believe they should have. If I don’t get that perfect gift, I’ll be depressed. Right?

Have we ever questioned why we have these expectations in the first place? From where have they come? Who is telling me, ‘It ought to be this way’?

If anything can capture and convey the true meaning of Christmas, a story will do just that. Listen, then, to the story of the ‘fussy angel’:

“When Jesus was born as a tiny baby, God wanted Him to have a special angel to guard Him. But it wasn’t St. Michael the great warrior archangel he chose; nor the mighty archangels Raphael and Gabriel.

No, it was the smallest angel in Heaven that caught God’s eye. ‘This one will do well,’ the Father said. Which proves that God works in strange and mysterious ways.

“But on that Christmas Eve when Christ was born, the little angel was not happy with what he found. ‘This will never do,’ he said, looking around the cold and drafty stable. ‘Get those smelly beasts away from my Master,’ he ordered, tugging on the donkey’s tail. ‘Who knows what diseases they carry and they’re breathing in his face!’ ‘Hush, little one,’ Joseph said. ‘Their breath is warm. They comfort him.’

“There was a cobweb on the manger. Mice peeped out from under the straw and, perched on a beam above where the baby lay, an old crow gazed downward. The little angel grabbed a straw broom and began some furious sweeping. ‘The King of Kings and they dump him in a barn full of animals,’ he muttered. ‘It’s terrible.’ He waved the broom at the crow but the bird ignored him.

“….At midnight the door of the stable burst open and a group of excited shepherds tumbled in. The shepherds fell on their knees, their leathery faces pointed in the direction of the manger. ‘Where’d you lot come from? You’re tracking snow inside. Keep the noise down. Can’t you see he’s sleeping?’ the angel warned.

“A young shepherd took a woolly lamb and laid it at the foot of the manger. ‘What good is a lamb? A sheepskin blanket would have been a better idea,’ said the angel. ‘Can you imagine how prickly it feels to sleep on a bed of hay?’ But Mary smiled at the shepherd boy and bent to pat the lamb.

“In the early hours of the morning they heard a camel snort and into the stable proceeded three wise men. They were richly dressed. Mary held the baby on her knee and as the kings approached, they laid at her feet gold, frankincense and myrrh.

“’That’s very pretty and quite useless,’ the angel observed. ‘If you were truly wise you would have known that what we need is hot water and towels; goat’s milk and bread; twenty diapers and some soap to wash them with.’ The kings turned their proud faces on the angel and were about to reply when the baby gurgled with delight and waved a royal fist in the air. Tempers cooled and everyone smiled … even the angel.

“Outside over the fields and houses of Bethlehem, angel choirs were singing in joyful chorus – ‘Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.’ The angel stepped outside. ‘The night’s not silent but it’s definitely bright,’ he said. ‘I’ve never seen so many stars. What was God thinking of? How can anyone sleep with all that light? We need curtains to shut it out.’

 “He found some sack cloth and pieces of straw and blocked the holes in the roof and walls of the stable. ‘Blow out your lanterns,’ he ordered the shepherds. ‘The baby needs some sleep.’ But even with holes blocked and lanterns dimmed, the stable was bathed in a golden glow. From the center of the manger a light shone that penetrated the darkness and it seemed this light would never be extinguished.

“By now the angel choirs were piling up ‘Glorias’ which shook the heavens with their strength and timbre. The angel strode outside again: ‘No, no, no! Brother [and sister] angels, have pity on him. He’s human now and needs to sleep. Turn the volume down!’

“But the heavenly choirs could not be silenced. Crescendo after crescendo rang out with such power and majesty that the people came out of their houses and gazed fearfully at the skies, wondering what was happening.

“Sure enough, inside the stable the baby had wakened and was back on his mother’s knee. The angel hung his head in shame. ‘It’s a mess,’ he groaned. ‘My poor master! What can I do?’

“Mary reached her hand toward the angel. ‘Come and see,’ she said. She drew back her veil and the angel looked at his tiny charge. And as he looked, his frustration melted. ‘Why everything is perfect,’ he thought. ‘It’s just the way He wants it to be. Smelly animals, prickly straw, silly gifts and loud music. The snow and the thin, sack blankets. It’s human and it pleases Him.’

“…. he was [then] struck by a surprising thought. This poor stable would one day be more famous than Buckingham Palace or the White House. In the hearts of the people everywhere the stable with its dirt floor and broken walls would be the most glorious palace of all ….” (Mary Arnold, The Fussy Angel, Ignatius Press, 1995).

Tonight, I welcome you to consider how you relate to the newborn Child of Bethlehem. Remember – God’s not looking for the perfect place to be nor the perfect person to do God’s will. God does not demand a perfect situation or people in order to fulfill God’s purpose and be present with God’s love.

Each of us is invited to come and kneel at the manger. I think Jesus and his ‘Abba’ Father in heaven would be happy – pleased – simply for us to come, to give what we are, and who we are, just as we are. What a gift – the greatest gift at Christmas, barring all expectations! – for Almighty God to receive us with such mercy, acceptance and grace. ‘Just the way we are’ is the best offering we can give to the tiny, newborn Jesus, who is our healing and our salvation. How can we resist such love?

Peace on earth, and in your heart, this Christmas.

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