Letter 52: Christmas Is Scary

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
    foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
    they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
    and in their glory you shall boast.
Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
    instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
    they shall have everlasting joy.

Isaiah 61:1-7 (ESV)

This was amongst the readings this year in our Advent devotional.  I’ve read it many times before, as part of our Christmas preparations.  This year, a phrase from verse two burst from the page.  In all my years of hearing or reading this passage, I had never seen it before: to proclaim the day of vengeance of our God.

This is not an aspect of the Christmas story I’m used to hearing.  It is hard, after all, picturing the traditional image of the Infant in the manger with the vengeance of God.  But it is there.  In fact, as we continued with our readings, I kept finding that undercurrent of danger popping up.  Do we know what we are proclaiming?

The one response that seems to have gripped everyone that first Christmas is fear.  No one comes away unscathed.

The Old Testament prophets looked upon the coming of a Messiah with hope, but also an acute awareness that God’s people had all to often blown it.  Messiah is an answer to prayer, as well as a rebuke.

Zechariah is struck dumb, which created no small problem for him as a priest.  (Luke 1:18-22)  Priests after all, were to represent the people before God, which required speaking words.  He could no longer serve, until he affirmed the instructions God had given him.  Mary, too, is troubled.  The world did not take kindly to unwed mothers, and she would have to endure the rigors of her pregnancy largely alone.  Her body is literally taken over by God, swelling day by day.  (Luke 1:29)

Joseph alone seems to have borne the news with something like equanimity, but of course the risks were pretty obvious.  He’s told to marry a woman suspiciously pregnant, and assume parentage over a child of dodgy origins, sacrificing his dreams and business for promise, one he will never see fulfilled.

The angels are terrifying.  Our romantic Victorian imagery doesn’t do them justice.  Why are they so scary?  What are we trying to hide with our iconography?

The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) riffs on these theme, and reveals why Christmas is so scary.  God regards the poor and humble, and remembers his covenant with Israel. He scatters, He tears down, and lifts up, echoing Isaiah 40:4.  What is this describing but an earthquake?  The hungry are filled, but the well-to-do are sent away empty.  What if we are deemed rich?

That is the scary thing.  We do not know, and the coming Messiah promises to expose all things (Luke 2:35).  Paul speaks of God as a fire that will burn through our lives and deeds, stripping away the chaff with which we surround ourselves, laying bare our essence.

Traditionally, Advent was time for the Church to look ahead to the Second Coming, having just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King, even as it was looking back toward Christ’s First Coming.  I think they caught that sense of danger in his Coming, that God is out to judge both his friends and our enemies, even as He brings peace, hope and healing.  May we recover something of that this holiday season.

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see.

The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears;
cause of endless exultation
to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture,
gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
claim the kingdom for thine own.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Everlasting God, come down!

  • Charles Wesley
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Letter 51: Giving Thanks

Furthermore, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are worthy love, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, or if there be any praise, think on these things.” Philippians 4:8 (Geneva)

Heavenly Father-

I am thankful that this year the whole family was able to gather under one roof to celebrate for the first time in several years.  The food was good, too.  Thank you.

For the joy of curling up on the couch with our dog snuggled next to me.  Thank you.

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For the infectious joy my wife exudes whenever she gets an idea.  It gives me a taste of what Creation must have been like.  Thank you.

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For the blue of the sky against the golds, reds, oranges, greens and purples of the trees that makes autumn in the part of the world so special.  You go for the big box of crayons!  Thank you.

For the smell of fresh baked bread, or the aroma of something wonderful wafting from the kitchen after a hard day at the office.  Thank you.

For cheese, and bacon, and that through Christ, we needn’t keep kosher.  Thank you.

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For the thrill of voices blending together.  Thank you.

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For mercies new every morning, for all gentle thoughts and mild.  Thank you.

For Thyself best gift divine, to our race so freely given.  Thank you.

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O Give thanks unto the Lord, for he is gracious, and his mercy endureth forever.” Psalm 107:1 (Coverdale)

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How to Scream at God

I have screamed at God. I don’t think he minded it. I wish we would hear this more often from the pulpit. God is certainly big enough to take it, even if our faith is not.

The Jagged Word

By Cindy Koch

(The following is an excerpt from a presentation given on October 14, 2017)

I once asked the question out loud, “Have you ever been angry at God?” and I was met with a confusion of quiet stares. On my left I saw a half nod, quickly quieted as her eyes crossed the room. On my right, solemn and serious foreheads wagged stoically, no. A few frozen faces held their breath as the question hung in the air. Yet, for some reason, no one boldly shouted out their yes or no. The question uncomfortably stood before us, naked and embarrassing, and we didn’t know how to answer.

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Dangerous Assumptions

This is the conundrum we face. We need both Law and Gospel, and must live in the tension between them.

The Jagged Word

By Paul Koch

We all do it. We all assume things. We assume things about our friends and family, about strangers and perceived enemies. Assumptions function as a sort of lazy shortcut so that we don’t have to do the hard work of actually engaging in the details of an argument or the context of a statement. It’s easier to assume things are written or spoken with a particular agenda in mind and then speed to our judgment.

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Letter 50: With a Shine on Your Shoes

shoe-shine-

Last week, I decided to polish my shoes.  It has been a long time since I last did so, and it’s important to keep them polished.  They last longer that way.  It was one of the odd rituals of manhood instilled in me by my father.  I can remember helping him polish his shoes as a child.  He had a wooden shoe-shine box where he kept the supplies.  The handle doubled as a stand for the shoe.  Eventually as I kept my shoes longer, he showed me how to polish my own.

First, remove all visible dirt and debris with a soft brush, then apply the polish.  Wait a few minutes and then buff.  Repeat for additional shine.  For added protection and moisturizing, I learned to apply mink oil, which gave my shoes a glossy shine.  Once complete, take satisfaction in a job well done.

The message was clear, as a man, you take care of your possessions and your appearance.  Learn to sew buttons, darn socks, even hem trousers.  I have now owned the same pair of penny loafers for thirty years.  If you look closely, you’ll know that they’ve been re-soled and re-heeled, but that’s the only real sign of their age.

But it’s getting to be more of a challenge.  The last time I had my shoes worked on, I had to use a local dry-cleaner, as there are no cobblers in my area.  The same seems to apply to tailors.  Perhaps this is why people dress up so infrequently these days.  There is something about wearing a suit tailored to your frame.  Clothes off the rack have an element of shapelessness to them.  But then, we live in a shapeless age.

It may seem strange to you to find a reflection on something as prosaic as shoe polishing with all of the screaming headlines demanding our action and attention.  Perhaps, but I would submit that the discipline of keeping your shoes polished builds a frame of mind and character, badly needed.  We would all do well to take care of those things entrusted tour custody, to minimize waste, and to present ourselves at our best, not merely for our own sake, but as a measure of respect due to others.

He that is faithful in the least, he is also faithful in much: and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much. If then ye have not been faithful in the wicked riches, who will trust you in the true treasure? And if ye have not been faithful in another man’s goods, who shall give you that which is yours?”  Luke 16: 10-12 (Geneva)

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Letter 49: “Do This In Memory of Bruce Barton”

 

The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity.  We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….”  Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.

 

After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent.  I couldn’t join in.  God does not always want our ease, or our power.  Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering.  Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home.  Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.

 

We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s.  It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached.  We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11.  Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all.  He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.

 

Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short.  There is quite a history to such messages in this country.

 

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade.  Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book.  He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit.  As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man.  He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.

 

This marked a subtle shift.  Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment.  The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure.  One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste.  Who wouldn’t want that?

 

All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives?  The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them.  It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice.  We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.

 

A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion.  It didn’t feel quite right.  When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John 3:30.

 

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.

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Letter 48: Faith for My Fathers

 

It’s finally starting to look like Spring in these parts, after a fairly strange Winter.  In a few weeks my parents will be coming North for the last time.  My father has dementia, and while he can still make decisions, they have agreed that they need to be near family to help out and keep an eye on them.  I’m glad I won’t have to make sudden unplanned trips to Florida as my father did with his mother, but I wish their return were under better circumstances.

 

It’s hard to know how to pray exactly about this.  My father has stated very clearly that he doesn’t want to be a burden to anyone.  I suspect that as a child of the Depression, this thought was firmly impressed upon him.  I see standing watch for a few hours to spell my mother as an act of love, not a burden, but I can see his point of view.  He’s already a “burden,” and he hates it, but there’s nothing any of us can do. 

 

He can’t be left alone for long periods of time as he may forget to turn something off, or leave something valuable about.  But he can tell you all about his childhood dog, and how she loved to play.  He can tell me that the sun is shining, and that he had a doctor’s appointment that day.  But he can’t locate financial statements to complete his taxes.

 

He’s become sadder as a result.  The world looks more grim and depressing, and I can hear it in his voice.  No more opportunities, worse, no sense of hope.  My heart aches.

So, how do you pray?  That he is healed of dementia?  I haven’t heard of that happening to anyone, and to some extent, it seems to be part of the process of aging.  The days of a man are three-score and ten, and then only with much trouble.  Do I pray that the progress halts or at least slows?  Yes.  Dignity and comfort, and strength, too.  I seem to pray a lot for strength for various people these days.

O MERCIFUL God, and heavenly Father, who hast taught us in thy holy Word that thou dost not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men; Look with pity, we beseech thee, upon the sorrows of thy servant for whom our prayers are offered. Remember him, O Lord, in mercy; endue his soul with patience; comfort him with a sense of thy goodness; lift up thy countenance upon him, and give him peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

uncertainty

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