The Incarnation in Suffering

Epiphany is over. Eastern Orthodox Christmas was yesterday. And now, even peace and goodwill to humanity seem quaint memories, long abandoned. After the violence and political unrest over the last couple of days, I have decided to post an entry from my recently published Advent journal in its entirety. I need to refocus my heart to see Jesus more clearly. From Immanuel:When God Was One of Us, what follows is December 15, “The Incarnation in Suffering.” Be kind and gentle with all you meet. The Lord is near.

For more information on this devotional, please go to https://www.amazon.com/Immanuel-When-God-Was-One/dp/0578728060/ref=nodl_

December 15

The Incarnation in Suffering

There is irony in Luke’s account of the angels’ visitation to the shepherds with their choral message of peace and good news. When the divine touched down on earth to save it, there was no immediate eradication of sin, violence or injustice. Instead, they seemed to be exacerbated. The darkness did not understand this peasant girl’s “bastard,” new-born son was the eternal light, the light of the world, for the world.

There is a grave irony in this child entering the world of the Pax Romana. The great Roman peace would eventually be unwilling to protect him, and would be culpable for his execution. Even shortly before his birth, Rome could not maintain the peace of its citizens in the outlying Jewish districts.

The birth of Jesus gripped King Herod the Great with fear. Here, in this helpless baby from Galilean parents, was a threat like no other he had experienced in his political career. The prophecies, though intangible, heightened his paranoia. Having already done away with his wife and numerous other family members, Herod met his problems head on.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted,

because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

Why would God introduce his Son into the world in such a way? Why should there be the slaughter of innocents succeeding glad tidings of peace to all humanity? A mother who watched as her toddler is impaled, and flung to the side, would have a difficult time hearing the angelic herald:

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace among

those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)

Still, today, the world reels with the pain and confusion of suffering and injustice. It is often the innocent who suffer. As we suffer, or watch others suffer, we question why God doesn’t intervene. We doubt his love, his justice, or his ability to protect us from the evil of the imperfect world in which we are trapped. This isn’t the first time in the text that other innocents have perished for the sake of the deliverer. As the Israelites cried out to Jehovah for salvation from the Egyptian bondage, God answers their cries. However, he answers them much later, four hundred years later than they expected, and not before hundreds of enslaved baby boys were left exposed to die, or be impaled, strangled, or dumped into the Nile River. With the death of Christ, the One died for the many. At the birth of Moses and Jesus, however, many died for the one.

It is like this today. Empires, and powers-that-be, will always engage in acts of self-preserving violence. At some point, the government or empire that God has ordained, will step out to be a god itself. Invariably, if questioned, power will react with oppression or violence. Empire claims God until God is the enemy. When power is threatened, ego lashes out in ugly ways. Public service lasts only until God himself is perceived as the threatening enemy. Empire acts from self-preservation, fear and bondage to absolute power. God always acts out of freedom and with love. It is not God who slaughters for the sake of his messenger, but empire.

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him…. (Matthew 2:3)

Can we, in the twenty-first century, imagine in the United States of America or in other powerful, democratic Western nations, a tyrant’s paranoia and fear infecting an entire city? Would an entire nation of people succumb to fear and bigotry simply at the prospect of someone or something destroying their way of life, their global prestige? Nations and empires have always been in the business of excluding others, frequently through dishonorable, or even violent, means. Yet God is determined to include us all: Magi and Jewish scholars, small town peasants and turncoat peddlers, sixth generation church members and struggling immigrants barely getting by.

The good news for us today, whether we are in the United States or modern-day Egypt, France or Uzbekistan, is that we do not have to make sense of fragile but powerful egos, nor monolithic political systems and religions. Matthew’s gospel tells us that some misguided but gentle wise men came from the East to meet a new king. Some historians believe them to be of the early monotheistic Zoroastrians. The crazed Herod, part Jewish, part Gentile sell-out to the Roman empire, offered little moral guidance. There is no proof which indicates the “right” religions are based on superior morality alone. If morality was the world’s salvation, we could all pick our favorite moral system, and the world could certainly be a better place. Only God is good, however. No, Jesus did not invade legal systems and political regimes in order to make us moral. He came to obliterate death and to elongate the bridge over sin and to unite us back with God.

So, there is no violence that will end our suffering. There is no oppression which will broker peace. We might be able to bandy about terms like “peace keepers,” “preemptive strikes,” “casualties of war,” or worse, “collateral damage,” in order to desensitize ourselves to the fact that we are bowing down to the idol of stability and empire. We might say the ends don’t always justify the means. Novelist Min Jin Lee, rather, says sins can’t be “laundered by good results.” Dirty is dirty, and our world of empire with some God poured on top has grown filthy.

Matthew’s gospel, in contrast to Luke’s, shows us the uncomfortable side of Christmas. After we wait through Advent, we are shocked when it isn’t all sweet and joyful. Much of Advent deals in oppression and injustice, and even death. For when the divine intersects with a hurting, blinded world, there will always be adverse reactions. Let us live, then, sighted, for a different world.

Christ came as Immanuel to embrace humanity. He came to be like us, so that God could re-create us like him. Christ did not come to topple tyrants and dictators. We are still left to live in the midst of them—for now. Rather, he came to walk about with us, work in our cubicle, be treated unjustly and to demonstrate acceptance in unforgiving, unaccepting regimes that insist on maintaining a firm grip on their power. Jesus came to demonstrate love, and to reveal the truth of his eternally established kingdom.

The story of Jesus’ birth goes from bad to worse, but Immanuel did not intersect the divine with the human for such shadowy reasons. Jesus meets us at the worst of times and ushers in a new way of being and a new way of waiting. Instead, Matthew insists that this is God’s story, and that regardless of how it appears now, he is the One for whom we are waiting. It is his Advent that gathers us about the evening candles, and they are his promises we cling to when the world seems overcome with the brutality and fear of empire.

***

Just and righteous God,

Although our empires cry out for violence, we long to live in the goodness of your peace. Instead of lashing out in fear, grant us patience that your righteousness will prevail. Grant us tolerance and compassion in this time of suspicion and intolerance. We pray for the Magi around us that you will protect their journey and that you will work through us to be channels of Christmas grace and peace for those who seek you. Give us courage to stand against imperial power, knowing that all truth is your truth, and all power belongs to you, oh good God!

Amen.

“Thou art indeed just, Lord,”

Lately, I have been busy, but feel I am accomplishing little. It is the sort of busyness our Western culture strangely seems to value. I could enumerate several tasks I have completed throughout the day, yet the weightier ones, the ones which possess the most significance seem to remain neglected, undone. I have a list of deadlines looming, but even more our family seems unsettled and my own soul is not fully at peace. I am experiencing the disappointment of constant striving but without focus or satisfaction.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) experienced this, as well. The English poet was increasingly frustrated with his lack of productivity. The depth in his poetry seemed to elude him and though he wrote and wrote, the results disappointed him. He struggled with discouragement, even depression, most of his adult life.

Like the psalmist David, Hopkins begins his poem “Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord” with a lament and complaint.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and

why must

Disappointment all I endeavour

end?

This is a cry of theodicy, a questioning of God’s goodness and care in a difficult world that seems far from ideal. He then ends it with a plea for help and a praise-filled recognition of the Lord as the true source of refreshment.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I

contend

With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is

just.

Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and

why must

Disappointment all I endeavour

end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,

How wouldst thou worse, I wonder,

than thou dost

Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and

thralls of lust

Do in spare hours more thrive than I

that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks

and brakes

Now, leaved how thick! laced they

are again

With fretty chervil, look, and fresh

wind shakes

Them; birds build – but not I build;

no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one

work that wakes.

Mine, O thou lord of life, send my

roots rain.

It is somewhat comparable to David’s content in Psalm 13 where the psalmist also confronts his creator on his fairness and justice.

How long, O LORD? Will

you forget me

forever?

How long will you hide

your face from me?

How long must I take

counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my

heart all the day?…..

Consider and answer

me, O LORD my God…..

But I have trusted in

your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in

your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,

because he has dealt

bountifully with me.

Psalm 13, A Psalm of David

For weeks I have felt weighted down by my ineptitude as a mom, teacher, peace maker and spirit-filled being. Even if I grow heavy with the feeling of unfruitfulness, I can count on his grace and his refreshing rain like the psalmists rely on, to supply “my roots rain,” for “he has dealt bountifully with me.”

Peace

Holiday2013 030_edited-1The first Noel the angel did say

was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay:

in fields where they lay keeping their sheep on a cold winter’s night that was so deep.

As parents we strive to cultivate in our children a truth faith in Christ; we also fight against many cultural norms.  It is a daily fight to keep materialism, egocentrism, and shallow worldviews out of our homes and hearts.  This is precisely why yesterday’s church service pleased me so much.  As we sang this beautiful Christmas hymn, I felt I was participating in my own culture, without having to fight against it.  I was happy to participate in a typical custom and tradition – the singing of Christmas carols.

Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel

Born is the King of Israel

Whether your faith sustains you daily, or whether you only nominally believe, whether Christmas is for you a holiday full of presents, family and warm memories, or whether it is the fulfillment of God’s promises to bring His Son to help His people, if you celebrate Christmas, you most likely sing carols.

I was struck Sunday morning in church services by the sheer beauty of sharing something with the fellow believers around me, but also with those outside a religious context.  I am not always happy with the lessons pop-culture throws at us spiritually, politically,  and morally.  Yet, today, God’s people are joyful in their sharing of this cultural tradition.  However, in my mind, it is because of Christ we sing.

“Glory to God in the highest,

and on earth peace to men on

whom his favor rests.”  Luke 2:14

The angels emerged on the scene, albeit a small, bucolic scene, praising God’s plan in marked contrast to popular culture.  While the entire Roman world was benefitting from “pax Romana”  the angels sang of an abiding, ancient, eternal peace.  Their chorus resounded of a peace beyond political realms, and social boundaries.  Sunday morning we stood next to other believers, professing His birth for the sake of our community and for the sake of the world.  We sang of the peace of God.

And by the light of that same star

Three wise men came from the country far;

to seek for a King was their intent,

and to follow the star wherever it went;

Like the wise men, for many of us peace is an incomprehensible, distant thing.

“He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” Ephesians 2:17

The angels sang of both glory and peace.  The joy and warmth of the season should be felt in this message –              We thank God.

We share His gift of peace with all we meet.

As you love the holly leaves this winter, as you breathe deeply of spicy evergreens, may you breathe in and love His peace, whether you are far from Him now, or close enough to call Him Christ.

Merry Christmas.

Jealous of Thoreau

I am jealous of Henry David Thoreau.  Yes, I do know he is deceased, but I cannot help it.  I am still jealous.

001

After reading several chapters of My Side of the Mountain, a story of a New York boy who decides to live out on his own in the Catskills, A is doing some preliminary reading on Thoreau.  As he  is starting to do some research for his eventual essay, I began to re-read bits of Walden, various quotes from other sources and came upon this –

I think I cannot preserve my health  and spirits unless I spend four hours a day…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

 DSCF2290_1672

Exactly!  If I could just spend half my waking hours away from all people, I would be replenished and peaceful.  I could handle the rest of the day.  This is fairly close to how I spent some of my time in my 20s.  It was glorious.  I was a Thoreau in a city park.  Now, I am a mom of three boys with scarcely a moment to myself.  Mr. Thoreau, my spirits are failing, but a hibernation to Walden Pond  seems impossible.  Four hours a day?  Four consecutive minutes seems a stretch.

 DSCF2254_1643

Given the opportunity I would not change my life, but am I the only one who complains about what I do have?  The children are needy.  Life, at times, seems tedious, and I can be easily preoccupied.  My schedule is crowded.  The house constantly needs attention.  Mr. Thoreau, how do I carry with me the quietude of the forest?

 Beautiful, beautiful day!

Mr. Thoreau, I think I may be talking to the wrong person.

 study in sunlight and leaves

Jesus was constantly surrounded by people.  They were always following him and grabbing for him.  They were needy and insensitive.  He had a great deal he wanted to accomplish in any given day.  Did he get distracted?  He was often side-tracked by the crowds.  He was never able to spend four hours a day sauntering anywhere.  And yet his “health and spirits” always seemed strong.  Even in fatigue he never lost his temper; his compassion and vision for people never faded.  He had the eyes and heart of God.  He had an insatiable desire to spend time with his father.  He pulled away.  Even for a moment.  Often times a moment was all he was afforded.  Yet it was enough.

“Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses.  But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  Luke 5:15-16

"I am so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers!"  -L.M. Montgomery

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”  Mark 1:35

Jesus, teach me to pray.  And let it be enough.