Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year 2019: What Happens Next?

In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s autobiograph-ical musical, “In the Heights,” there is a poignant scene in the second act. The characters have just survived a night of looting in the midst of a Fourth of July blackout. Usnavi, the main character, has lost his bodega because of vandalism, but his main concern in the sweltering heat is the health and safety of the aging Abuela Claudia.


Are you okay?

Paciencia y fe!
Paciencia y fe!

So we survived the night, what happens today?

What happens today? The question crosses all our minds, but there is no answer. We can’t predict the future. It would be futile to try.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money,’” writes the Apostle James. “Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.” (James 4:13-16)

In the musical, much happens after Usnavi asks the question, “What happens today?” The musical is no longer on Broadway, but it is on tour, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t like spoilers. Before the day is over, Abuela will split her lottery winnings of $96,000 with Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny. Before the day is over, Abuela will die of heart failure in her bedroom. Before the day is over, Usnavi will make plans return to the Dominican Republic, the home of his parents. But before the day is over Sonny will arrange a special tribute to Abuela Claudia that convinces Usnavi to stay in the Heights. None of these events were likely when Usnavi began the day with the question, “So we survived the night. What happens today?”

Our lives unroll uncertainly before us. Maybe today will be much like yesterday, and perhaps yesterday was much like the day before. On the other hand, no one can suppose there will not be catastrophic changes in the soothing routine. 

We tell ourselves that tomorrow is promised to no one but, in fact, nothing is promised to us. My Sociology Professor Tony Campolo – who, when I was in his classes, did not know that in a few tomorrows he would become an evangelical superstar – used to say how scared he was by evangelists who sought to frighten you into salvation with familiar taunts: “You don’t have to come forward to be saved now, you can put it off until tomorrow or the next day. You can walk away tonight with hell fires crackling around your ankles and wait until some other time to be saved. But – But! – what if you walk out that door tonight and get hit by a bus?” We’d ask Tony, the existential sociologist, if the sermon made him afraid of hell fires, and he’d reply, “No! It made me afraid of buses!”

As we look around us today, at those we love, at familiar surroundings, common items we hold in our hands every day, are we missing invisible signs that might shed light on what happens next?

Some historians have said that one of the eeriest images of the television age took place on the morning of November 22, 1963, as cameras captured the crisp, full-color images of President and Mrs. Kennedy descending the mobile stairway from Air Force One. Mrs. Kennedy beams as brightly as the Dallas sun as she models her pink suit and trademark pillbox hat, and a Dallas newsman who has never seen JFK in person marvels at the charismatic young chief. “He’s taller than I thought,” he reports, “he’s tanned and lean in a well tailored suit and a light green shirt. He’s the prince of America.” In this glistening moment, the future seems secure, God appears to dote on the United States, and the unwary President bares his teeth in a grin of grace and domestic tranquility.

But as we know so well a half century later, these happy moments are fleeting. Within minutes of the grinning descent from Air Force One, as the motorcade heads into downtown Dallas, the President will be dead.

Blown away.
What else do I have to say?

I’m inclined to think it would be terrible if we knew how our lives will evolve, if OuiJa Boards and botanicas provided spoilers of what lies ahead.

Who needs it? My maternal grandmother got it into her head that she would die on February 6, and all her life she would greet each new year with dread anticipation that this would be the fatal year. She passed so many years safely – more than 80 of them – that the rest of the family lost patience with her morbid annual observance. Then she died, on February 6. Perhaps Grandma had some divination of the day, if not the year, of her death. But what good did it do besides making her miserable every January and February?

As I write this, I’m flashing back to an old Mutt and Jeff cartoon I saw decades ago in the Syracuse Herald-Journal:

Jeff:  I Wish I knew where I was going to die.
Mutt: Why? What good would that do you?
Jeff: I’d never go near the durn place.

All of this prognostication gives power, perhaps, to the story of the ancient woman and man encountered in the temple by Mary, Joseph and Jesus when they went there to designate their first born male as “holy to the Lord,” and for Mary’s purification as a woman who had recently given birth. (Luke 2:18-40)

Simeon and Anna had gifts of divine discernment, and when the young couple and new baby boy came to the temple, the old ones knew exactly who they were.  They also knew what the future held for them, and it was not all good news.

Before she met Simeon and Anna, Mary’s knowledge of her prospects was that they were spectacular. The angel said she was with child by the Holy Spirit, and the shepherds tramped down from the fields to tell her what the angels said about the birth of the messiah, the Christ child. And “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

But while Mary was treasuring the future in her heart, a harsher reality awaited her and her family, and the old folks knew it. Because the messianic franchise is not all bliss and glory.

Both Simeon and Anna had taken up residence in the Temple, and both of them knew for whom they were waiting. When she saw the baby, Anna “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Simeon discerned God’s promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he, too, recognized the baby immediately. He held the child tenderly in his arms, and praised God:
“Master, now you aredismissing your servant in peace,according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared inthe presence of allpeoples,a light for revelation to theGentilesand for glory to yourpeople Israel.”
But it was to Mary that Simeon turned on a more somber note.

“This child,” he said, “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”

And then:  “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

This is a spoiler about events to come that had yet to be revealed to Mary, the teen-age mother who was still pondering the glory of being the mother of God’s son. God, who had kept this information from her until now, called upon a kindly old man in the temple to tell the whole truth: blessed are you among women; but an anguish of spirit akin to a sword in your soul is your fate as well.

The agony that ameliorates the ecstasy follows shortly afterwards, when Joseph, Mary and the boy Jesus are forced to leave behind everything they know in order to escape the death sentence imposed on all newborn boys by the murderous King Herod. There are few hints, in canonical scripture, what it may have been like to raise an adolescent Messiah, but the attitude of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple is suggestive. Jesus had gone missing amid the Passover crowds in Jerusalem, and Mary and Joseph searched frantically for him. “Child, why have you treated us like this?” Mary demanded. “Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”

Clearly an apology is in order, but the boy’s response is slightly arrogant, or would have been if he had been your kid: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must have been in my father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49). 

A few verses later, Luke reports that Jesus “was obedient to them,” but perhaps this only meant he was turning over a new messianic leaf. Disappearing from one’s parents is not an act of obedience.

At this point, the future still held many incidents of soul-piercing intensity, including the adult Jesus’ departure from Mary’s home, the sermons that convinced Jesus’ own siblings and friends that he was nuts, the angry crowd that followed him with the intent of throwing him off a cliff, the hostility of the religious authorities who felt threatened by his authority, and, ultimately, the arrest, flagellation, and crucifixion. Mary, who had once pondered God’s goodness and her son’s glory in her heart, ultimately sat at the foot of a Roman cross and watched her son die a slow, excruciating death by asphyxiation. The only pain that could have equaled that was the figurative sword thrust so cruelly in her soul.

On that day so long ago, when Mary took her infant son into the temple for his dedication to God, would she have been better off if there had been no Simeon to warn her about the future?

Perhaps not. She would have discovered the truths about life soon enough. She was still a teenager when she gave birth to Jesus, but as a young girl in a family oppressed by a malicious foreign rule, she must already have known life has equal portions of joy and pain. As she grew older and experienced more of life, this reality would have become more certain.

But Mary was also witness to the fact that there is more to life than joy and pain and the finality of death. She also played a major role in the decision of the Creator of the Universe to experience the misery and agony of human life in such a way that pain might be forever expunged from the soul’s eternal essence. Because Jesus suffered on the cross, the sword that pierced Mary’s soul – the swords that pierce all our souls – are forever removed.

It is always tempting, as we live out our lives, to want to know when the inevitable pains of living will come, or when death’s sting will come to us, or where. Some of us would welcome the spoilers, the mystical predictions, which will lay it all out before us. And others will be just as glad to go through life never knowing when that belligerent bus will put a quick end to all we know.

But none of that really matters. It’s enough to know that pain and death will come, whether we know how or when.

But just as certain, as made clear to Mary by Simeon and Anna, the ancients of the temple, is that God has a plan to take away our pain, and the day will surely come when we can praise God for a long-promised blessed release,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared inthe presence of allpeoples,a light for revelation to theGentilesand for glory to yourpeople Israel.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

FDR and the Magees

ve told this story many times and I can't resist telling it again. It helps me understand the awe that must have been generated by the three magi when they traversed rural Palestine to stand so ostentatiously before the ragged occupants of a stinking stable.

Yes, awe. Awe in the purest sense. That must have been how the residents of the hamlet of Morrisville, N.Y. my hometown, reacted to a brief manifestation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1930.

Morrisville is not completely isolated.  Its location on U.S. route 20, which connects Albany with Utica, Syracuse, and points west, places it directly in the flow of intellectual and cultural currents. In 1930, Governor Roosevelt motored up route 20 to pay his respects to I.M. Charleton (standing right in the photograph below), the director of the Morrisville Institute (now Morrisville State College).

This little known event suggests Morrisville was not the least among the hamlets of Upstate New York. A future world leader discerned the importance of cultivating village intellectuals like I.M. (who, if not a Republican, was one of the few persons in the village who wasn’t.) History does not say whether Morrisville was at the top of FDR’s itinerary, or why he appears to have left the engine running as he sat in his car and charmed the local gentry. The important thing is, he came.

The family of Julie FitzSimmons Bookhout, one of my classmates at Morrisville-Eaton Central School in the early 1960s, had a special involvement in FDR’s visit. “Since my grandfather, George FitzSimmons, was a car dealer in town, he had the best car with which to fetch FDR at the train station in Utica and bring him back to Morrisville,” Julie told me last year. My Aunt Anne FitzSimmons Kelley, who must have been 9 at the time, and is now 94, got to ride along in the car with FDR himself!”

In 1930, no one knew what Franklin Roosevelt’s future held. Still, he was important enough that I.M. Charleton thought it good to stand on the curb and chat with the Gov as he sat in the luxurious car. We know now, of course, that FDRs paralyzed legs made it necessary for him to sit while I.M. stood, but in 1930 no one thought it was odd. The governor had perfected the art of charismatic sitting.

FDRs visit may have been the most historic thing that happened in Morrisville during the Depression and possibly for all time.  My mother said the whole town turned out to watch South Pole explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd role special ice breaking equipment up Main street (and, as Central New Yorkers know, the harsh winters of Morrisville make it a good place to test out arctic gear). Some say they glimpsed Lieutenant Governor Malcolm Wilson at Sautter’s Diner in 1964, but Wilson is virtually unknown except to those who crossed the erstwhile  Tappanzee Bridge which was named for Wilson until it was torn down this year. The new and improved bridge is named for Governor Mario Cuomo. 

I surmise that FDR’s visit was unequaled by anything else that happened in Morrisville and someday a plaque may be placed in the pavement where his oil pan leaked 88 years ago.

I surmise all this for two reasons. One, FDR’s visit was as memorable to Morrisvillians as if exotic kings from the east had dropped by for coffee and pie. It gives chronic bible readers an emotional point of reference for what it must have been like to wake up in a barn in Bethlehem and see three kings stepping delicately over sheep poop.

And, two, I like to make it clear that my home town was not intellectually or culturally isolated, despite our Central New York accents that make us sound like lethargic North Dakotans. This stems from my frequent discomfort, decades after leaving Morrisville, to discover no one else pronounces words the way I was taught. One teacher pronounced the name of the ancient queen of Egypt as Klayo-PAY-tra, and also said the name of the Communist leader of China was pronounced his name the way it was spelled: Mayo Tissie Tongue. 

Also in the seventh grade, when we were introduced to the short stories of William Sydney Porter, who wrote under the name of O. Henry, I was entranced by a story I thought was entitled, “The Gift of the Magee.”

In my defense (and on behalf of Morrisvillians), I assert that it is very difficult to see the word m-a-g-i and quickly grasp that it is pronounced with a long a and a long i. The dictionary pronouncing hint is even less clear and looks like a logo for a foreign car: mæda. Moreover, the word magi was never used in the United Church of Morrisville. We knew about the itinerant kings, of course, because each year we built a manger scene on the front lawn of the church. But I was 10 before I realized they weren’t from a place called Orientar. And I was 15 before I realized they were magi, not magees.

Ideally, my digression should end here, but I’m still transfixed by the unexpected visit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to my home town. Like FDR’s visit to the Morrisville Ag and Tech institute, the visit of three kings to Bethlehem was calculated to make everyone feel important. If something was happening that warranted the appearance of the future president or the ancient kings, it had to be taken seriously.

On January 6, Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas that, along with twelve drummers drumming, marks the arrival of the Magi at the manger where Jesus was born. In our household, we observe the traditional Latino celebration of El Día de los Reyes and exchange small gifts in honor of their kingly largesse. But this is not a practice I grew up with in Morrisville, and it is not a universal observance.

Views as to who the kings were, in fact, are as varied as the Christian church itself. Some sects, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, excise references to the Kings because they were regarded as sorcerers of Satan. That’s a minority viewpoint, but it does tempt you to look a little closer at these guys.

A handful of scholars believe los tres reyes were precocious astronomers who mapped the stars and studied the passage of planets, but that would have placed them several hundred years ahead of their time. Most observers are convinced the kings were garden variety astrologers, a possibility supported by the fact that they not only looked at stars but believed that celestial bodies had something to tell them – and, more than that, they  followed one star for hundreds of miles to find out what it wanted them to know. 

Of course, the moving star of Bethlehem was more likely a migrating planet than a fixed star, but who knew about such realities of astrophysics back then? One thing seems certain: the first thing the kings would have checked in Entertainment Weekly was their horoscope.

The term magi, from magus, is a reference to the priests of Zoroastrianism, who studied the stars and planets and made elaborate charts to work out what their movements portended in the currents of human life below. The three magicians from the east didn’t become “wise men” until the 16th and 17th century, when scholars who wrote the King James Version of the bible decided to call the magi “Wise Men.” Elsewhere, the drafters of the bible used the same word to denote “sorcerer” or “sorcery,” notably in reference to Elymas in Acts 13:6-11, or Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-13.

Matthew does not identify the three kings, or magicians, or wise men, but thanks to long standing church tradition, we call them by name: Melchior a Babylonian scholar; Caspar (also Gaspar, Jaspar, Jaspas, Gathaspa, and other variations), a Persian scholar; and Balthazar (also Balthasar, Balthassar, and Bithisarea), an Arab scholar.

Everything else we know about the kings is circumstantial. One reason we know they were important is that when they dropped by the palace to pay their respects to King Herod, the King took time to meet with them. This was either a professional courtesy to his fellow kings, or – as Matthew tells it – Herod had heard the rumors that a king of the Jews was about to the born and he invited the three sorcerers in to find out what they knew. The wily Herod asked the three to let him know when they found the lad, “so that I may go and pay him homage.” 

Matthew states explicitly that when the triumvirate found the baby Jesus laying in the manger, they gave him three symbolic gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the kings were smart enough to know Herod was setting a trap for the baby – Matthew says they were warned in a dream – and they “left for their own country by another road,” evading Herod and his agents. Herod realized he had been duped by the kings and, according to Matthew, ordered the death of every new born male child in Bethlehem.

No one knows what happened to the kings after they returned home, although there are many interesting legends. Some believe one of the magi was baptized by St. Thomas, the “doubting Thomas” of Scripture, while he was en route to his missionary tasks in India. Both the Mar Thoma Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India trace their origins to the first century visit of St. Thomas to South Asia.

But it was Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned as pope from 590 to 604 A.D., who placed the traveling wise men in their proper historic perspective. In one of those rare sermons that is remembered for 1,500 years, Gregory stressed the fact that the wise men, having searched for and discovered the Christ, took a different road and never retraced their route.  “Having come to know Jesus,” he said, “we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

Despite all the mystery and speculation about whom they really were, the three magi continue to preach a powerful message across the millennia. They were three non-Jews whose minds and spirits were open to powerful spiritual currents, including cryptic indications that a powerful monarch was about to be born to the Jews, a group they might have dismissed as a relatively minor sect in the Roman and eastern worlds.

When the three sorcerers perceived a unique sign in the heavens, a bright object that appeared to move ahead of them, they followed it out of intellectual and metaphysical curiosity.

As they pondered the heavenly sign that moved before them, they consulted their charts and concluded it was leading them to a rendezvous with a infant whose power and significance exceeded all they ever knew.

En route to Bethlehem, they decided to mark the occasion with significant gifts to the baby king: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense as a reminder of God’s presence, and myrrh, an embalming oil, as a symbol of the death that would be required to bring the prophecy to fruition.

When they arrived at the end of their journey, these wise men born to riches did not hesitate to enter a rude, odiferous barn, because they knew the power and glory that resided in the human baby resting in an old feeding troth.

They came from afar and they knew who they were seeking and when they arrived, they worshipped the baby in the troth.

When they had met Jesus, they knew their lives must be changed forever. And they chose a new road for passage, having decided that they must never again retrace the steps that had brought them to this radical encounter with the son of a God they were only just beginning to know.

The very presence of these three splendid strangers must have amazed the parents of Jesus and astonished other witnesses in area. The visit of the obviously important Magi would have been regarded as a sign that something big was happening – just as Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930 appearance in Morrisville was a sign of something big.

But the glistening kings knew something that may have temporarily eluded others: they knew the magi were not the most important presence in the tiny barn.

That honor belonged to the smallest person in the room, the feeble infant still struggling to find the strength to lift his head.

It was the baby that the wise men came to see, and once they had seen him, their lives were changed forever.

And as we watch them in our minds eye, three kings stepping out on history’s stage, choosing a new route of enlightenment and understanding, may we all be eager to follow them and the star that brought them to God’s salvation,

westward leading,
still proceeding,
guide us to thy perfect light.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Vipers hated him. Locusts feared him.

Luke 3:7-18

By our own standards, John the Baptist was one of the worst advance men in history.

Rather than cultivate religious insiders, he called them vipers and told them they were going to hell. No wonder they were so surly when Jesus arrived.

In modern times, the role of the advance team is to attract crowds, warm them with compliments and jokes, and get them excited about the great leader who will soon follow.

Months before Billy Graham opened an evangelistic campaign, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea and dozens more would descend on the city, schmooze with clergy and politicians, recruit choir members, anoint ushers, and get everyone excited about the coming of the great man. I participated in some of those advance meetings prior to Billy’s 1967 London crusade. By the time the advance team was finished, I was convinced that only Billy's presence could save millions of Londoners from hell.

Of course most people would like Billy Graham whether he had an advance team of not. The advance is more essential for politicians who are not naturally likable, including Lyndon B. Johnson.

For years, LBJ’s advance team included his cousin, Ava Cox, and J.J. Pickle, a Texas pol and future congressman. 

When Johnson ran for the senate, and later for vice president, he would send Cox and Pickle into the hustings to convince large crowds to come out to welcome the LBJ campaign helicopter. As the chopper approached, Pickle would take the mike to remind Texans how much Johnson had done for them and how much more he would do for them if they sent him back to office. Excitement grew as the helicopter circled the field and a familiar voice crackled from a speaker: “This is Lyndon Johnson. I’m going to land in just a minute and I want to shake every hand down there.”

When the chopper banked, the six-foot-four-inch candidate would appear larger than life at the aircraft door. In what looked like a spontaneous gesture, LBJ would remove the ten-gallon hat from his head and throw it into the jubilant crowd.

“Now, that was dramatic and he had about a four-beaver hat,” Ava Cox said later. “And when he did it … our job was to go get that hat … and if we didn’t get it, we'd catch ‘Hail, Columbia’ from the boss then. And he’d say, ‘Do you know how much that hat cost me? Do you know how much? Have you been in to buy a Stetson hat lately?’ We’d say no, of course we wouldn’t ‘cause we didn’t dare wear a hat like it. He said, ‘That’s coming out of my pocket. You get that hat when we throw it out,’ and we’d have to go get that hat. Usually we could get it, but if you got it recovered by a little 10-year-old boy, it was pretty hard to run up and say, ‘Son, give me that hat.’” *

No one knows if LBJ lost votes when his advance men wrested the hat from people, though some may have thought the gesture showed his true colors. 

In a sense, John the Baptist was grabbing the hat back every time he got up to speak. In the first breath he’d talk about the realm of God and how wonderful it will be when Jesus arrives, and in the second he was condemning influential religious leaders to unquenchable fire. Thanks a lot, Jack.

As a journalist, I knew several persons who did advance work for politicians. Many of them were indeed nicer than the pol they served, and it takes enormous skill to make a reporter on deadline feel okay that the boss had little time to waste on you.

I have done a little advance work for traveling ecumenical leaders or church hierarchs who liked to meet with the press, and one time the World Council of Churches sent a colleague and me on a trip around Zimbabwe to assess hotels, game parks and other recreational activities for persons attending the eighth assembly of the WCC in Harare.

What we assessed was that some airport runways in Zimbabwe had not, in 1998, caught up to jet travel. Sonia Omulepu and I boarded a British BAe-146-300 regional aircraft that hopscotched its way to several small airports around the country. 

The runways were too short for jets and the aircraft had to slam on its brakes to keep from charging into the bush. We scarcely noticed the seatbelts grabbing at our bellies because we were distracted by the acrid smell of burning brakes.

Our particular aircraft had lost the cooling agent to reduce the temperature of the brakes so each time we landed we had to sit on the plane for an hour until the brakes were cool enough to use. 

The short runways also made takeoffs difficult. There wasn’t enough room for the plane to accelerate normally to liftoff speed so the pilot held the aircraft at the end of the runway until the engine reached a deafening pitch; then the plane lunged forward as passengers were slammed roughly against the backs of their seats. We felt the G’s as the plane soared into the air. 

What the advance team of Omulepu and Jenks found was one of the most beautiful countries in the world, with spectacular scenery including Victoria Falls, modern farms, exotic game preserves, Zambezi River cruises, comfortable hotels, and excellent restaurants.

But our message to the six thousand assembly visitors eager to visit the country was concise: take the bus.

John the Baptist’s advance work was invariably rude and hardly designed to comfort his audiences. Still, he attracted huge crowds. People may have been as impressed by his honesty as by his assurance that God will forgive the repentant. Certainly folks enjoyed his verbal attacks on the overweening aristocracy, the Pharisees and Sadducees. 

They would certainly have noted his warning that their salvation would not depend on being a member of a great ancestral lineage recognized by God. 

“Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’, he said. “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

My grandfather Addison was a perfunctory Methodist, though no member of my family recalls ever seeing him in church. His real religion was a form of ancestor worship. He believed the family name would be enhanced if he could trace its roots to a great ancestor, such as a Mayflower pilgrim.

Perhaps in Heaven I will have a chance to ask Grandpa what the big deal was about the Mayflower, which was filled with puritans of the same ilk as Oliver Cromwell, who missed the boat and stayed home to slaughter thousands of Catholics in Ireland. Later, the puritans in America jailed and flogged Baptists on the pubic square in Boston and hanged innocent women as witches in Salem. 

I think it makes more sense to be ashamed of a puritan ancestry, but Grandpa was pleased to prove – to his satisfaction, at least – that he was a descendant of Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley. And so, possibly, are you. Elizabeth and her husband, John Howland, produced ten children whose prolific progeny generated millions of living descendants. There is no evidence Elizabeth whupped Baptists or hanged witches – she was probably too busy accommodating Mr. Howland and changing diapers – but her bloodline isn’t going to save anyone either.

The central theme of John the Baptist’s message is this: 

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Even as a child, John knew that his calling was to prepare the way for the ministry of the messiah.

Obviously he didn’t fully comprehend all that included. At one point he even sent two messengers to Jesus to make sure he wasn’t making a big mistake.

“When the men came to Jesus, they said, ‘John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’” Luke 7:20-23)

As an advance man, John had a distinct disadvantage. He didn’t know the whole story. He didn’t know how it would turn out. And sometimes he was puzzled when Jesus reached out in love to everyone, even the brood of vipers John assumed the messiah would consign to unquenchable fire.

With that in mind, we can certainly understand John’s brusque demeanor and eccentric ways. He may not have been the best advance man in the world. But he was a faithful prophet who understood God offers love and forgiveness to all who repent.

But we, who have the advantage of knowing how the story came out, know that Jesus took it a step further.

God, Jesus said, loves each of us unconditionally – the repentant and the unrepentant – and God will send no one to eternal fire without giving them abundant chances to turn back to God.

And the message assigned to you and me, as members of Jesus’ advance team, is the eternal declaration of angels:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors.” Luke 2:14.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent: It's Making Me wait

The Heinz family – that singular conglomera-
tion of aristocratic noblesse oblige that gave us H.J. Heinz, Senator John Heinz, Teresa Heinz Kerry and 57 combinations of condiments – didn’t get rich by underestimating the American people.

When they made their luxuriously thick ketchup, they realized they had a potential problem. The ketchup was so dense you could hold the bottle upside down for what seemed like hours before the first drop would dribble on to your cheeseburger. Almost no one in the United States has that kind of patience and the Heinz people feared millions would desert their delicious condiment in favor of Brand B, some thin, runny, but instantly available tomato liquid. Brand B offered lower satisfaction, perhaps, but instant gratification.

In 1979, with the aim of stemming the migration away from their viscous product, the Heinz people implemented a TV ad you may remember well. Two boys are shown patiently holding a Heinz ketchup bottle over their hamburgers as the first drops of red goo begin to form at the bottle’s mouth. In the background, Carly Simon sings: “Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” In the 32-second commercial, the boys have plenty of time to decide postponed gratification is good. As the scene closes, the words appear on the screen: “Heinz Ketchup. The taste that’s worth the wait.”

There you go. An Advent sermon in a single sentence. The taste that’s worth the wait.

This singular phrase, historic in the ad business, is a helpful clue as we parse the unexpected passage placed before us by the Revised Common Lectionary. This is not only the first Sunday in Advent, but the first Sunday of Year C, the year of Luke.
Luke 21:25-36 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. Then he told them a parable: Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.
The passage, sometimes called “The Little Apocalypse” because it quotes the adult Jesus’ prediction of the end times, is not very Christmassy. There is no babe in the manger poetry, no paeans to the Christ child, no glory to God in the highest, no peace on earth. Instead, we are warned that stars will be falling from heaven and we are advised to keep awake.

That’s not Silent Night. That’s the Ride of the Valkyries. Who knew we would begin this joyous season with dark warnings of the collapse of all we know? Where are the tidings of great joy?

Karoline Lewis, assistant professor of preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, thinks the rhetorical bombshell might be good for us. “There is a certain realness in this Gospel text to begin the Advent season,” she writes. “It cuts through any sentimentality and romanticism about Christmas and reminds us that incarnation is risky business.”

The passage in Mark, like its counterparts in Luke and Revelation, is the basis for the expectation of the rapture, that at the end of time Jesus will appear in the clouds and send out his angels to collect his elect from the four winds.

Rapture theology can be distracting and even dangerous, as you may recall if you were watching for the end of the world on May 21, 2011 when a misguided evangelist named Harold Camping said it would happen. Camping and his followers spent fortunes on bill boards and T shirts to alert people to the end of time, financed in part by many who sold everything they had to pay for the ad campaign.

Most Christian scholars said then that Mr. Camping, who died in 2013, was clinically nuts. Even Al Mohler, the conservative president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – whose statements about the National Council of Churches and its member communions were unabashedly obtuse – spoke with wisdom on the Camping issue.

“Given the public controversy, many people are wondering how Christians should think about his claims,” Mohler wrote. “The Bible does not contain hidden codes that we are to find and decipher. While Christians are indeed to be looking for Christ to return and seeking to be found faithful when Christ comes, we are not to draw a line in history and set a date.”

In the first centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, persecuted Christians yearned for the return of Jesus and prayed daily for him to keep his promise.  The Apostle Paul didn’t predict the date of Jesus’ return, but he thought it was imminent: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (I Corinthians 15: 51-52). A couple millennia later we are still waiting, and many Christians have lowered their expectations.

I was in a workshop with Robert Schuller in January 1981 when he bet the millennialist Hal Lindsey a million dollars that Jesus would not return before the year 2000. Clearly Schuller’s ideas about the Second Coming of Jesus drifted leftward, but I was more impressed by the fact that he was a man who knew a sure-fire bet. Lindsey, incidentally, declined. And it's 2015 already and Lindsey is still waiting for the rapture while soliciting contributions and selling merchandise as if he thinks the world will last forever.

It used to be that evangelicals tended to avoid actions against climate change on the grounds that eco-justice didn’t really matter because Jesus would return before the polar icecaps had fully melted. More recently, conservative theologians like Richard Cizik, formerly a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals, jumped into the eco-justice movement with both feet. As thousands of evangelicals followed in his wake, it was clear that most acknowledged the near unanimous verdict of scientists that global warming is caused by human abuse of the environment. It was also an indication that many evangelicals no longer plan their lives around the notion that Jesus will return before their mortgages are paid off.

The Second Coming of Jesus is a basic tenet of faith, appearing in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. It’s something we should be eagerly anticipating. But our reaction to the “The Little Apocalypse” set aside for our first week of Advent suggests we find the idea a little scary. It’s no coincidence that most of the end-of-world movies are classified as horror, and even films with a rapture theme portray a vengeful Jesus in pursuit of terrified sinners.

That probably says more about us than it says about the films. Most of us live lives of reasonable contentment and we would prefer to indulge the non-threatening Yuletide trappings of tinsel and wassail than contemplate the stars falling from the sky.

The future, for many of us, is a very scary place because so little is known about it. No matter how hard we try to live virtuous lives, all of us have fallen far short of perfection – and the future, we fear, is where all our chickens come home to roost.

This month when we watch the inevitable rebroadcasts of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (if you only have time for one, I recommend the 1992 Muppets version), the ghost of Christmas yet to come is the creepiest character of all – not because of his menacing cowl and skeletal fingers, but because he shows Scrooge his own just desserts, the righteous judgment on the grasping, self-obsessed life he has led. It is Scrooge, not the ghost, who is the chilling character in these scenes. Ebenezer’s life of depraved indifference to the poor leaves him no chance of heavenly reward, and he knows it. He fears the ghost of Christmas future most of all. He has no hope of relief, no promise of the joys of postponed gratification, so his anticipation of the ghost’s awful truth is agony for him.

“Anticipation. Anticipation. It’s making me wait.” And the anticipation is hell.

Most of us, perhaps, have less to worry about than Ebenezer Scrooge, but at Christmas time we’d still rather trill with Silver Bells than pulsate with apocalyptic cannonade.

Given all this, it will take a little discipline to remind ourselves: when we anticipate the coming of Jesus, there is no difference between welcoming him as an innocent child or as a rescuing savior.

Karoline Lewis offers reassuring words: “The darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon's light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we have known it. That death will be no more because God will die is something to anticipate during Advent. This is not to be a downer just when Bing really kicks into high gear with White Christmas. It’s to speak the truth, about ourselves and our unrealistic expectations; about God and how God exceeds them.”

Advent begins, and there will be many joys to share in the coming weeks: the Advent wreaths, the manger tableaus, the pageants, the lights, the presents, the family gatherings, and the familiar carols.

The Advent message, as always, is that the Creator of the Universe has taken on human flesh, coming to us in the form of a powerless, innocent infant.

And the message is also that God, through this child, has come to die on a cross, conquer death, and ultimately to return to gather those who have been redeemed in loving arms.

What does it matter if the stars fall from the sky if death has been defeated and a new, more perfect life begins?

The bottom line on the first Sunday in Advent is this: the coming of Jesus is good news.

And our Advent prayer is to savor the anticipation of the miracles yet to come.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent Again

December 2, 2018 – Today begins the season of Advent – a time of preparation and waiting for the baby Jesus.

This is hardly surprising. We’ve seen signs of the season since early September when the tinsel began to appear in stores, although in retail settings the emphasis is on Christmas profligacy rather than prophecy.

Be that as it may, it’s hard to dislike a season that professes giving and love and brings Bing Crosby and Nat Cole back to life to croon beloved carols. The weather outside, thanks to global warming, is frightful, but in our hearts, the fire is so delightful.

Many of us will go to church today expecting familiar Christmas hymns, although many pastors will be loathe to provide them so far ahead of the actual Nativity celebration.

And many of us will search worship bulletins for favorite scriptures and prophecies that portend the coming of the Christ child:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6, Authorized Version)

But no. This week’s Revised Common Lectionary takes us to the opposite end of the story: not to the coming of the babe in the manger, but to the second coming of Jesus at the climax of history.

The scripture for the first Sunday in Advent is like a cinematic spoiler that skips the opening scenes and transports us directly to the stirring conclusion:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” Luke 21:25-36

What’s this? Not the birth of a baby but the end of life as we know it? It seems odd that scripture for the first Sunday of Advent begins at end of the story, long after the nativity, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. Doesn’t knowing the ending take some exhilaration away from the plot? I keep thinking of a beloved nephew who HATES spoilers and plugs his ears and loudly hums the theme from Game of Thrones when he thinks I may reveal some crucial plot twist he doesn’t know, like, the beautiful call girl in The Crying Game is a dude. (Oops.)

Of course, many Christians are already so familiar with the Jesus story that it probably doesn’t matter at which point it begins. It’s all there in the Apostle’s creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

So here we are at the beginning of another Advent, reading the words of Jesus as he prepares his disciples for his post resurrection reprise. If it seems a little out of sequence to us, it’s good to remember that both the first and second coming of Jesus make the same point: God has intervened into the wretchedness of human history to rescue us from suffering and death, and that is worth celebrating any time of the year.

But I also like this juxtaposition of beginning the story at the end because it makes us think a little harder about an essential element of God’s nature: that is, God is not captive to the limitations of time as are we. God is time. God is as present in the past and future as he is today. The ancient Jews knew his name but never pronounced it because it was deemed too holy to utter: 
Yahweh. I AM

 is eternally present at the creation, is present at the birth of Jesus, is present at the rise and fall of the Caesars, is present at the rise (and, yes, the decline) of the United States of America, is present this very moment, and is present at the return of Jesus.

Our brains are not wired to comprehend the eternal continuum of being where there is no yesterday, today, or tomorrow, only now; where there is no I was, I am, I will be, but only I am.

Only the God who has the creative power to call the earth, planets and stars into being has the unfathomable ability to remain present – 
I AM– in all those events, including those we think are gone forever or may never happen. God is eternally there.

No wonder Jesus’ listeners choked on their tongues when Jesus associated himself with that unimaginable presence: “Before Abraham was, 
I AM.” (John 8:58). The revelation must have been a thunderclap, a slap in the face of those who knew the awesome meaning of the words.

The notion of 
I AM is so deep, so heaped in heaviosity (as my generation used to say) that it is exhausting to contemplate it. It’s a little like trying to explain Einstein’s Relativity to ourselves as we struggle to grasp the curvature of time-space that enables Superman to fly faster than time so he can rescue Lois Lane from an untimely death.

H.G. Wells, Gene Roddenbury, and Stephen King have made time travel seem an entertaining prospect. Isaac Asimov flatly rejected the possibility of time travel, noting it was illogical to suggest he could travel back in time to kill his grandfather because – ergo – that would effectively eliminate the chain of sperm that would have sired Isaac’s father or Isaac himself.

But perhaps it is not so illogical to imagine Dr. Asimov could have been an unseen observer in his grandfather’s dacha – assuming, of course, he had godlike powers to exist simultaneously at two points in the continuum of time.

That doesn’t seem likely, although it is not necessarily illogical that humans who play their appointed roles in God’s circular drama of existence might catch the occasional sideways glimpse of other players in earlier – or later – dramas.

One of the unusual attractions when I lived in England in the mid-1960s was the frequent manifestation of ghosts – or what appeared to be departed spirits of the formerly living. In High Wycombe, just west of London, there was an abandoned monastery supposed to be haunted by the ghosts of monks dispatched 500 years earlier by King Henry VIII. Late at night on certain high holy days, witnesses imagine – as did I in 1967 – they can hear the dead monks chanting mournful dirges.

Not far from RAF Bentwaters in Suffolk, where I was stationed for three years, there is an old castle erected by the Saxons to keep an eye out for the Normans. The bastion, billed as “the second oldest” in England, doesn’t attract a lot of tourists. But residents say that on moonlit nights they occasionally catch glimpses of a company of medieval soldiers dressed in chainmail marching silently toward the turret gate. When a cloud covers the moon, the soldiers disappear.

According to credible witnesses, Abraham Lincoln’s visage has been glimpsed at the White House years after his death. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, a guest of President Roosevelt after the Nazis overwhelmed her native Holland, reportedly heard a knock on the door of her White House bedroom. She opened the door, found herself staring into Lincoln’s eyes, and fainted. Winston Churchill, another White House guest, said he emerged from a bath and as he stood naked in his White House bedroom he saw Lincoln sitting in a chair beside the bed.

I do not for a moment claim credence for any of these stories, although they are nothing if not Dickensian. Most psychics describe such events as ghostly visitations of departed souls, not unlike the three specters who visited Ebenezer Scrooge.

But I like to think that ghosts are not always what they appear to be. Sometimes, I’m guessing wildly, they could be sideways glimpses of living persons still performing their roles at other points in the time-space continuum: chanting monks, soldiers marching in 11th century England, or the very much alive President Lincoln pacing the White House corridors as he struggles with very contemporary issues in 1863. I love to imagine that we are sometimes treated to glimpses of real events that are, to us, long past, but continue to unfold in the eye of the great 

I don’t claim credence for that flight of fancy either, but I regard it as an entertaining metaphor to remind us that when our earthly lives are over we will be liberated from the bondages of time and enter into the presence of the God 

Perhaps a bonus of eternal life will be the privilege of glimpsing history’s saints and sinners, medieval soldiers, and Abraham Lincoln, through the eyes of God, in their own times and places.

I know that wouldn’t work for everyone but, as an amateur historian, it would be heaven enough for me.

And for me, Advent is the perfect time to allow our imaginations free range. C.S. Lewis wrote that he never ceased trying to imagine Heaven, and his metaphor was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Dante imagined celestial spheres. Others imagine a dwelling place with mansions and angels and God on a throne. Johnny Cash sang of a beach on the far side of Jordan where he would sit drawing pictures in the sand. Alice Sebold, in her disturbing novel, The Lovely Bones, imagined heaven as a magical place you could modify in accordance with our own concepts of beauty and peace, and where your beloved dog would join you.

Of course none of us will know the whole truth until we get there. But Advent is that time of year when we can let our imaginations run wild and contemplate a wonderful place where we shall spend eternity.

That, after all, is the gift God gave us when God entered human history at a time the great 
I AM knew was perfect. In the fullness of time the Christ child was born and in the fullness of time the Christ will return.

And part of our preparation for Advent is to keep in mind that whatever God 
I AM does and whenever God I AM does it, the timing will be perfect.