Reflections on the Common Lectionary, Cycle B
I know that the sun will rise tomorrow.
With all of the scientific facts and astronomical data we are blessed with today, I can expect to wake up tomorrow and see rays of light shining through my window.
There is also no debating time. Our clocks, both digital and internal, continue to tick onward no matter the circumstances. These are inexorable certainties in life. However, these proven facts of our existence are limited. They are not the whole story.
There are things in life we neither can physically see nor explain, and yet we choose to believe anyway.
When our little siblings place their fallen teeth underneath their pillows, hoping to see a winged fairy deliver gifts in return, they are relying entirely on an unproven belief. When students choose universities to attend, they do not know what the outcomes of their decisions will be, nor can they predetermine their futures after school. But they continue to grow and experiment with life anyway.
Even the wisest of theologians and clergy have very few answers to the questions pertaining to God’s existence that enter our minds on a daily basis. All of these situations represent something many of us hold onto so dearly: Faith.
A friend of mine — one who’s wiser and kinder and more thoughtful than I — knows the difficult, painful unweaving I’m talking about. She, too, was carroted down the rabbit trail of a hope-filled future shared with someone, only to discover her bed was left just as cold as the promises she’d so earnestly trusted.
“Falling in love is totally magical and beautiful and gives you this insane ability to operate on 4 hours of sleep a night for a long time,” she said. “It chooses you and that gift is one of life’s best ones. You have to choose it back, though.” She paused, her voice cracking, and I knew she meant it. “At some point, you become more real to each other and the hard work sets in. So you try and try, and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work out. And when that happens, you’ll be ok.” I was looking at her across the table.
“Just let it be sad,” she concluded. “Ironically, sadness will be your guide out of sadness.”
Hugo, Take Shelter, and The Mill and the Cross have little in common on the surface other than their quality; look deeper and you may find love-filled, theologically profound, hopeful invitations to live better.
How does one dig out from under such tragedy? How does one have hope for a better life, for a new Haiti?
In a meditation titled "The Gates of Hope," Minister Victoria Safford writes:
"Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope -- not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of self-righteousness ... nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of 'Everything is gonna be all right,' but a very different, sometimes very lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it might be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle — and we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see."
Indeed, we need to plant ourselves at the gates of hope and work toward a just peace, on Earth as it is in heaven.
In the Incarnation, Christ brings hope to a world where, for the time being, Herod is still king, and all is not as it should be. Christmas includes the story of a terrible genocide — a traumatic refugee experience for young Jesus and his parents, and all the worse for those parents who were not warned in a dream and thus did not escape to Egypt before their infant sons were murdered — but as evangelicals we seldom reflect on this part of the story. (Catholic & Anglican Christians remember these victims on the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28, a practice I adopted for the first time last year.)
The great hope of Christmas, though, is that it represents the entry into history of a Prince of Peace, who will eventually dethrone Herod and Caesar and set all things right. We’re still living in that tension: Christ’s kingdom has been inaugurated but is not here in fullness yet, as the injustice of last December’s DREAM Act vote and a thousand other tragedies of poverty, conflict, and marginalization throughout our globe remind us. So Christmas is a time for mourning and for hopeful joy: and it is entirely right that Advent is a time of eager and expectant yearning. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
Last night we watched the First Family light the National Christmas Tree.
We expected what we get every year: a broad message about generosity and the season of giving. But what we got was so much more.
President Obama’s remarks were encouraging. They were about the Christmas that Christians celebrate as a week of Advent, not just Christmas as a generic feeling or a season. Several news outlets, including CBN, CNN, and The Christian Post covered the story in a tone of support, somewhat surprised at the president speaking from a place of deep personal faith. His remarks were so wholly about the Christ in Christmas that it could have been delivered by a local reverend.
The news is hopeful. We have seen both progress and proof:
- New data shows that an HIV-positive person on treatment is 96 percent less likely to pass HIV on to others.
- It only costs, on average, $335 for AIDS treatment through PEPFAR (down nearly 70 percent since 2004!).
- 22 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have reduced new HIV infections by 25 percent.
- Clinical trials show that voluntary male circumcision reduces the risk of new HIV infection in men by roughly 60 percent.
Yesterday was truly a momentous occasion. Looking at all the progress we have made, especially in the last 10 years, it is a moment for us to not only celebrate, but in the words of President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, “recommit ourselves,” to end the fight against AIDS totally.
To me, "unexpected" is at the heart of how I understand grace. It is the unearnable gift, the divine reversal and sacred surprise, the still small voice that drowns out the din of the maddening crowd, the little bit extra that my Cajun friends call lagniappe, the very thing we "deserve" the least but get anyway. From God. From the One who created the world and the audacious, indescribably power of love.
Taking a cue from Nell, here are just a few of the unexpected blessings I am grateful for today:
For God's fingerprints that cover every inch of our world, seen and unseen. And for the moments where I can almost make out the holy whirls imprinted in the sky, the ocean, the sunlight, and on the faces and stories of each of us.
For the generosity and selflessness I see so vividly — all around me, all the time — even in these lean, nervous days. I saw it in Zuccotti Park, where strangers prepared and served food to other strangers. I saw it in the sober faces and strong arms of the men who helped 84-year-old Dorli Rainey to safety after she was pepper-sprayed at an Occupy rally in Seattle. I heard it in the prayers lifted at the White House, at North Park University in Chicago, and in the basement of a church in Spanish Harlem where kind, mighty souls formed Human Circles of Protection last week and stood in solidarity with the poor, the vulnerable, and the least of those among us. I watched it on display at border crossings, immigration rallies, refugee camps in the Horn of Africa, and at a glass blower's studio in my hometown of Laguna Beach where strangers arrived with shovels and wheelbarrows to help dig out an artist and his artwork from the muddy ravages of a flash flood. I saw it in the fresh coat of paint on the front steps of my elderly parents' home in Connecticut that my cousins had applied for them with great care and kindness when my brother and I couldn't be there to do it.
Billy Graham has always been a life-long learner, passionate about preaching the gospel but always ready to understand more about what that gospel means in the world. It was never surprising to me that this southern born and raised American evangelist decided early on to insist on preaching only to racially integrated coliseums and crusades, when many others just went along with their culture. Later, as a result of falling in love with the new congregations we was preaching too in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, had a "change of heart" on the nuclear arms race-which we featured in a cover interview with the evangelist in Sojourners magazine. Billy Graham has also been willing to admit his mistakes and grew from them, which is something all of us as "leaders" need to constantly learn from. And while a conservative evangelical all his life, Graham was never drawn to the hard edged and politicized fundamentalism of the "Religious Right" but instead often winced at them.