This Sunday’s reading from John’s Gospel (15:9-17) is all about love.
It drips of love.
It reeks of love.
But, it’s a little confusing on the face of it because John’s philosophical style mixed with this esoteric notion of love that is both human but also super Divine is, well, hard to describe.
I mean, how do you describe something that literally defies explanation? Divine love (and by that I mean love that is Divine and also the love given by the Divine) is as comforting as a hug and as wispy as a fog.
On a recent NPR podcast where they went back and did a retrospective of the last 50 years of the station, they gave a brief clip of an interview with author and illustrator Maurice Sendak at the publishing of his latest (and, it would turn out to be, last) book.
The interview started with heartfelt pleasantries as Sendak, who had been on the program before, expressed his admiration and, indeed, love for the interviewer. He noted that they were both up in years, though he admitted he was much farther along than her in that department, and then he said that he saw this as a good thing because he “wouldn’t have to miss (her).”
I was listening to this podcast as I was on my daily run, and this caused me to stop for a second.
Stop, and put my hands on my knees, and as sweat dripped from my brow (it was in the 80’s today here in Carolina), a tear mixed with it because that, by God, embodies what it means to love.
To love is to both have your heart open enough to miss someone when they’re gone, and to be grateful enough that you might pass first so that you don’t have to feel that pain of missing them.
Love means loving enough to miss someone, and to have a small sliver of gratitude that they might outlive you so that you never have to know that hurt yourself because it would be unbearable.
That sound selfish, I know, but sometimes there is pain you just can’t imagine and you pray you never have to realize.
That’s not selfish. That’s human. That’s being in love.
When put in the context of the Jesus story, of self-sacrifice, Divine love means loving something to death…and one step beyond.
To love our neighbor, then, means to love them enough to miss them when they’re absent…which is why it matters who is at the table.
Conversely, you also trust they miss you when you’re gone…
That kind of love takes a lot of vulnerability and a lot of trust. It takes a lot of willpower and heart-power.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: our notions of love in this life are often underwhelming.
We say we love everything from babies to burritos…and we can’t mean the same thing when we say that, right? Greek with it’s four-pronged definition of love does a bit of a better job at narrowing love’s definition, but ultimately we just have to be honest and note that love is something we try to wrap our minds around, but just really can’t.
Instead, well, maybe instead we should just wrap our lives around it…and be grateful for a love that has the possibility of stinging just a little bit on both sides of the relationship equation depending on how things work out.
Blow the trumpet in the holy city bless a holy fast! Get everyone together bless them all the elderly the young children even babies who still breastfeed! In the middle of their weddings get brides and grooms to stop everything. -Joel 2:15-16-
This reading will be read at most every Ash Wednesday service today, virtual or in-person…however we’re getting our ashes in this pandemic (which feels like a heap of ashes already).
The prophet Joel intends to call people back into right relationship with God. In order to do that people would sometimes be invited to fast. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism…fasting is pervasive in all the major religions. A bit of self-denial heightens our indulgences, right?
Sometimes people fast for poor reasons, though. I know of someone who does regular fasts because they are certain that they can “hear God more clearly” when they fast. I’m not sure that’s a good reason, honestly, because I’m not sure that’s how it all works. Certainly there is a need to get rid of distractions in order to discern the Divine in the world, but not eating that candy bar (or anything?!) for forty days seems like an ineffective way to do it.
God doesn’t need your sacrifice…at least, not that kind. If you eat too much candy, sure, fast from it. But if you think it’s getting you brownie points with the Holy Presence I think you’re kidding yourself.
Sometimes people take on fasts to just “do it,” like not eating meat on Friday or not eating meat at all for Lent. That’s fine, I think, if you consume too much meat (and most Americans do, honestly). But if you’re doing it just to see if you can…I’m not sure that’s a good fast, Beloved.
The prophet Joel blesses a fast in order to bring the people back into right relationship, otherwise known in the scriptures as “righteousness.” Fasts are not used to deny people good things as much as to help them see how their relationships with things (or people, or food, or, well, anything) is off kilter.
I’ll say that again for folks in the back.
Fasts are not about denial for denial’s sake. They are about taking a hard look at how your relationship with certain things is off kilter.
And, yes, in the process you’ll continually be invited to analyze how the relationship with the Divine is off kilter, too.
Now, if this hasn’t been your practice in recent years, no need to feel bad about it. There are all sorts of ways the messaging on Lent and fasts has gone awry…humans are wont to do that (hence why we have the season of Lent at all! We’re kinda messed up in all the right and wrong ways). And fasting is not the only thing to do in Lent. Many people choose to add a practice, work on habit change, or do some spring cleaning both physically and spiritually.
Those are all great.
But I’ve decided to fast. To look at some relationship stuff.
I’m going to embark on a Lenten journey of my own, with some updates/devotionals to add to the mix. Most fasts will begin on a Sunday and last the full week (there are 6 of them), and you’re welcome to join in. I’ll be writing and reflecting each week about the particular fast and what I’m learning, and I’ll be noting my thoughts, ponderings, and realizations.
All of these fasts are intended to help me better analyze my own relationship with each subject, and be honest about how they’re off kilter. I’m not righteous in these areas, Beloved. I know this. I want to dig deeply into that.
Week 1: Fast from delaying bedtime. This pandemic has been terrible on my sleep. Many of the folks I coach have noted that, too. I’m going to go to bed when I’m tired at night, or at least by 10pm.
Week 2: Fast from iPhone. I carry it around with me. I scan the apps. I respond to texts in two seconds. It’s out of control.
Week 3: Fast from Media. This will be a bit tricky, but I’m going to say media in general, not just “social media.” Too much binge TV at night. Too many apps open on my phone. Too much stopping in the middle of work or writing to scroll social sites. I’ll still post on a social site this week, mostly to keep the blog updated, but I’m going to “post and ghost.” No reading the comments…
Week 4: Fast from Buying. The pandemic has made Amazon a little too convenient. But not just Amazon, I’m constantly looking for excuses to go out and grab a coffee-to-go or skip making dinner and just ordering in. Not this week. That urge needs to me analyzed and, I hope, curbed a bit. I’ll allow for grocery buying (because I’m the cook, so I do that shopping), but other than that, no purchases (and no gift-cards, either! Loopholes are for suckers).
Week 5: Fast from Processed Foods It’s not that it’s just not good for me, it’s not good to me, either. I know it’s not. This week will be interesting because it means no processed anything, even that Friday beer, those corn chips I allow in a moment of salt-crave. Nope.
Week 6: Fast from Meat We don’t eat meat with every meal, but I think we eat it too much. On the far side of this fast I intend to make some rules around meat consumption. And, here’s the thing we forget: when you eat an animal, you also eat what they ate! It’s a double-whammy of mindless chomping there.
So, here are the fasts. And you’re welcome to join if you’d like. In fact, I would like that very much, especially if you take a bit of time to reflect on your off-kilter relationship with the topics and send them on to me, either as a comment on a post or in an email. I want to be in a more righteous relationship with these things.
But, maybe your relationship with these things isn’t off kilter at all. Maybe you’re working with other issues that need addressing. Alcohol? Snack foods? Lack of activity? Spiritual practices?
Whatever it is, take a fast. But don’t do it to solely to deny yourself that thing; absence does make the heart grow fonder and, do you really want to go back to the old you when this is all over? The you who had an off-kilter relationship with these things?
Do it to analyze your relationship with it all and, on the far side of the fast, sanctify some changes, Beloved.
After all, repentance, metanoia, means turning around. Changing.
If you think you need that, if something is off kilter, run (a) fast toward change. See if you don’t find a new you rising come April 3rd.
If you ask my youngest son what his favorite ornament on our tree is, he’ll point to a square glass ornament, red and white, shaped like a present.
“That one,” he’ll say, lightly touching it with a gentleness not usually seen from a five-year old. He’ll smile at you, look back at it, and stare at it in a way that makes you want to be the ornament: with awe and wonder and possibility and love.
Who knows? When his back is turned, maybe it becomes a real present, falling like an apple from the tree to be opened on Christmas morning. The imagination is wild and wonderful, especially at five.
January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, and in our house that means taking down the decorations at the end of the night, blessing the house, and formally folding up Christmastide.
But we didn’t do it yesterday.
In fact, we ushered our kids out of the living room where the tree with the beautiful present ornament resides. We stuck a toy they got for Christmas in their hands and told them to play as long as they wanted for the afternoon as we looked in pained faces at the screen in front of us.
Horror on the Capitol.
You kind of want your kids to look at their lives with awe and wonder and possibility and love, right? Like that ornament: who knows what can happen?
But what do you do with a day like yesterday? A day when leaders they’re supposed to trust and follow turn on them? When the highest office of the land curves in on itself like a deranged parasite, eating away at its own body to satisfy its own needs?
You leave the tree up.
You wait on that door blessing, for just one more day.
I’m not saying that you put off the holiday/holy day by any means, but you allow it to live, by God.
You allow it to live, to do the thing it’s meant to do.
Because the Epiphany is supposed to be a day of awe and wonder and possibility, a day when you honor the fact that the Divine is up to something in this world, dammit.
And yesterday was not that day.
And I don’t say that for political reasons, by the way.
I say that because, well, when words are used to incite violence–which is what happened–then the Word of God that we honor on the Epiphany, the Word sent to confront such words, is shadowed in anger and violence.
Especially because I saw, in those rioting mobs, more than one “Jesus” flag alongside a nationalistic flag that had nothing to do with a nation. I saw “Pelosi is Satan” and “Jesus Saves” signs as they broke windows and busted into the democratic halls intended to ensure our freedoms.
It’s an imperfect union, Beloved, but it’s all we’ve got at the moment. And it was not awe-some.
It was awful.
Holy days are intended not just to be observed, but to help us observe, Beloved.
What I mean is, holy days are meant to help us interpret all of life.
For instance: Advent is a time where we practice waiting so that we will know how to wait when the time comes. For births. For deaths. For new jobs. For the next big thing. For anything! Advent teaches us how to wait.
Lent, likewise, teaches us repentance…and Lord knows we need some of that in this world.
The rhythm of the church year is meant to help us breathe, to keep time, to know what to do next in life. But it is, above anything and everything, practice for those times in our lives when we’ll need to put these sacred skills into practice!
I’ve been in a season of Advent in my heart all throughout Lent when I was waiting for my son to be born. I was absolutely in a season of growth (Pentecost) when Lent descended on my heart at the death of my grandmother.
The seasons of the church teach us how to be in the world, if we’re willing to pay attention.
And so, yes, yesterday was the Epiphany. But it wasn’t an Epiphany.
In fact, what was needed more than anything yesterday was a little more Christmas, a little more celebration, a little more “God-with-us” and “Word-became-flesh” as too many angry words were spewed from the halls of power.
Yesterday needed a little more thwarting of Herod, and so we invited the Magi to stick around a bit longer, Beloved.
We’ll take down the tree later this week. Probably this weekend.
And we’ll slowly take off each ornament, inspecting it, standing in awe of it, telling one another stories about where we got it and how beautiful it is.
And then we’ll bless the house, pray a blessing on 2021, and tell each other how beautiful this new year is on the other side of yesterday. The wonder. The awe.
I want them to look at this world and see the possibility. The “good bones,” as Maggie Smith would say.
Because it has good bones…it just needs a bit more Epiphany.
Merry, in the ancient use of the word, didn’t mean “happy” or even “bright,” as the carol might suggest. “Merry” meant “safe” or “secure.”
“God rest ye merry, gentlemen…” was how the old song went. So many think it means that the gentlemen are happy, but really it is better translated as, “God make you safe, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay!”
Which makes more sense, right?
So I wish you today a safe Christmas, a blessed and secure Christmas, especially in these pandemic days. Advent just hit differently this year for me, perhaps for you, too. But I pray Christmas hits with safe and secure joy.
Today I’m taking a little bit of an easy way out and coopting a poetry piece from my brother Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He writes,
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree, this year and ran away to where there were no rootless Christmas trees hung with candycanes and breakable stars.
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree this year and ran away to where there were no gilded Christmas trees and no tinsel Christmas trees and no tinfoil Christmas trees and no pink plastic Christmas trees and no gold Christmas trees and no black Christmas trees and no powderblue Christmas trees hung with electric candles and encircled by tin electric trains and clever cornball relatives.
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree this year and ran away to where no intrepid Bible salesmen covered the territory in two-tone cadillacs and where no Sears Roebuck creches complete with plastic babe in manger arrived by parcel post the babe by special deliver and where no televisioned Wise Men praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey.
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree this year and ran away to where no fat handshaking stranger in a red flannel suit and a fake white bears went around passing himself off as some sort of North Pole saint crossing the desert to Bethlehem Pennsylvania in a Volkswagen sled drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer with German names and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue for everybody’s imagined Christ child
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree this year and ran away to where no Bing Crosby carolers groaned of a tight Christmas and where no Radio City angels iceskated wingless thru a winter wonderland into a jinglebell heaven daily at 8:30 with Midnight Mass matinees
Christ climbed down from his bare Tree this year and softly stole away into some anonymous soul He waits again an unimaginable and impossibly Immaculate Reconception the very craziest of Second Comings
I pray that it will be revealed to which anonymous soul God stole away into this year.
On this Christmas Eve, much different than years before, Mary is taking up much of my heart-space.
Normally I’d be busy with service preparation and sermon writing, this being my first Christmas out of a typical pulpit.
But now I’m prepping for a quiet Christmas, which still requires quite a bit of intention, but in a more meditative and introspective way.
How are you preparing, Beloved?
I mean, if Mary miraculously carried the Christ child, it stands to reason (by that logic) that we all might be pregnant with the Divine. Or, already are…
How will the Divine be birthed in our lives this year?
Advent is the time when we ask this question again. It takes four weeks to answer…sometimes longer.
Mary’s song sung in Luke’s Gospel where she talks of “the mighty being cast down from their thrones” and the “humble of heart” being exalted gives us a clue, I think, to what it means to have the Divine birthed into our world.
How will you participate, Beloved, in lifting up the humble and humbling those at the top? How will you, as Mary will, cry out in the streets for the sons and daughters killed in violence, fueled too often by politics? How will you, as Mary will find herself, be at the table of the unwanted more often than the table of prestige?
Because we love romance we’ve idealized Mary’s story of this miraculous birth in some lowly stable, but in fact she birthed a revolution and the church has forgotten that powerful story and put in its place a impotent story that coddles the powerful.
It’s just true, Beloved. I wish it weren’t, either. Religion has lost the lede.
As you prepare to birth Christ, birth the revolution, this year, throw on Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” as you do. It is a modern retelling of Mary’s song, if I’ve ever heard one, and speaks loud and clear (at least to me) what it means to birth Christ in this world, now.
Have you ever tried to express yourself and just spouted off thing after thing, like you were trying out a bunch of words like a model tries on clothes?
“What I mean is…”
“No wait, I should have said…”
“That’s not it, what I’m trying to say is…”
Sometimes I think the O Antiphons for the church are like this human propensity to just say the first thing that comes to mind, only to try again, and again, and again until we get it right.
Because we call for a Lord, for a Ruler, for the Dawn, for a Key; we call for it, but none of it quite fits.
Until today, when we say to the Divine, “What we really mean is, we just want you near.”
Or, as we cry out, “O Emmanuel!” which literally means, “God-hugged-close.”
The human longing for some unjudging love, for some Divine reassurance, for a reminder that this isn’t all just going to crap is ancient and ever-present and, Beloved, if there’s a year we need it, 2020 is it.
As philosopher and theologian Karl Rahner says,
“It is both terrible and comforting to dwell in the inconceivable nearness of God, and so to be loved by God that the first and last gift is infinity and inconceivability itself. But we have no choice. God is with us.” (from Meditations on Home and Love, 1977)
In what ways do you know the Divine…however you might define that…as being close? How is God far away? When you cry out, “Come, Emmanuel!” what do you imagine that will mean for your life?
What if it’s already true?
Spin what I think is probably the most incarnational song that ever became a pop hit, Osborne’s “What if God was One of Us” as you ponder the idea that God can be close again this year…is close again, this year.
When I’m working with people in my coaching work, a question I’ve often lifted up is, “What rules?”
I don’t usually ask it in that kind of way, but rather say something like, “Is your calendar ruling you, or are you setting your calendar?”
“Are you playing defense all the time, or are you on offense?”
In Advent the church today calls out to the Messiah, “O Ruler of the Nations, Come!”
If you ask most humans, I think they’d tell you that they don’t like to be ruled. And yet, we’re all under some sort of rule. We work hard to keep up with the Joneses. We work hard to pad that bank account. We let insults and failed relationships dominate the limited free space in our minds. We pine for things we want and are neglectful of the things we need.
The numbers on the scale. The numbers on the stock market. The names we’re called…and the ones we call others. We’re all ruled by something.
It’s funny that usually the ones who scream “Don’t Tread on Me!” through their bumper-stickers and yellow-flags are so ruled by their ideology that they can’t see the irony…
We’re all ruled by something, Beloved.
What are you ruled by?
In our Advent waiting, watching, and wondering, as we cozy up our homes for an unexpected guest, it’s also an opportune time to uninvite some guests from the party. Like, perhaps it’s a good day, as we’re so near Christmas, to uninvite that thing that has been steering your rudder in this season.
Or, perhaps, every season.
Because, for as much as we don’t like rulers and yet we’re all ruled by something, we do need a governing force in our being, Beloved. We do. We need a moral compass. We need banks to the river of life, and this is, I think, what the church cries out for today when it’s at its best: some guidance.
Because all those other things that rule our lives make us feel crazy most of the time.
And we’re not crazy. We’re just, well, poorly governed.
Today we cry out for a new leadership in our being. How would you rather be ruled, Beloved?
Dream a bit about it today. It’s possible. At least, in the season of Advent, we hope it is.
And while you’re dreaming, throw on Counting Crow’s “Long December” and wonder how, “next year will be better than the last…”
Today is the shortest day of the year for most of us. The Winter Solstice.
It seems fitting, then, that today the church cries out, “O Dawn!” or “O Bright and Morning Star!” as if entreating the Divine to break through the shadows for just a little longer.
The ancient rituals around the Solstice predate Christianity, of course. My ancient ancestors would take this day as a festival day, cutting down a large tree to burn mightily. They’d sing and dance around the fire, drinking and playing games, and they’d do it not just to have fun. They’d do it because they believed that, in their revelry, they’d coax the sun back into the sky, their long-burning fire helping to fuel it.
After all, if you heard a party going on, wouldn’t you want to join?
And this coaxing dance soon turned into a celebration dance as the sun did return, keeping its promise for another year.
This O Antiphon the church cries out has the same kind of feel, Beloved. In fact, the church knew this, which is why it placed its Christmas celebration at this same time. The congruence was not on accident, and fit so well.
I remember at Valparaiso University singing, “The dawn from on high will break upon us…” in morning prayer, and those words became written on my heart in a way that won’t seem to rub off.
What is the wisdom here?
We no longer believe the sun to be a god that needs coaxing. And, I dare so many may believe the Son to be God, or at least profess it, but don’t behave as if they actually do…
The deeper wisdom for this day is, I think, the ancient truth that those pagans and those early Christians knew: the dawn always comes, Beloved.
The night never lasts. The shadows never last.
I was listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being” the other day where she interviewed philosopher and writer Jennifer Michael Hecht. Jennifer, who is culturally Jewish and doesn’t practice a faith, writes passionately about how suicide has affected her life. From a non-believing viewpoint, but all the while incorporating wisdom from many religions, she argues that we can fight against suicidal urges by reminding ourselves of this very truth: how you feel today is not how you’ll always feel.
Or, in other words, the dawn always comes.
Even on the Winter Solstice. Even in the Winter Solstice of your life.
Some see it as a Divine promise. Others just know it from experience. But, regardless of how you come at it, Beloved, it’s just true…the dawn always comes.
Oh, and spin Five for Fighting’s “What Kind of World Do You Want?” while you’re reminding yourself that the dawn always comes. Because, well, if the dawn always comes we always have a chance to participate in building a better world.
That deep well that will grant my hopes and dreams.
We’re in love with those magical implements that will fix everything we perceive to be broken, aren’t we? What are the magical words to say, what is the shortcut, the silver bullet, the key that will unlock our hopes and dreams?
The true secret, Beloved, is there is no secret…
At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe.
The secret to success that the author of The Secret won’t tell you is that the only thing The Secret made wealthy was the author. The 4-Hour Work Week is an illusion made up to sell books. The Miracle Morning helped the author wake up easier because they made a pretty penny off of selling us the idea there was a “miracle morning.”
Oh, sure, like most pieces of writing, I’m sure there are helpful bits in all of these works.
Well, except for the Prayer of Jabez which was totally a scam…
But here’s the thing: the search for the shortcut, the secret solution, the silver bullet is a fool’s errand for your life, for my life, for anything.
The O Antiphon for this day, December 20th, is O Key of David. This ancient name for the Messiah is intended to evoke the idea that the chosen one will unlock the blessings of God for the people.
But the irony is, of course, the the Key of David was not the key most wanted.
The suffering servant the world found in Jesus the Christ didn’t seem to be blessed. In fact, he’d be full of unwelcome ideas like, “You must lose your life to gain it,” and “Those who want to be first must become last,” and all sorts of tidbits that would absolutely never sell a single book.
And yet, Beloved, this is Divine wisdom: you will find what you need in the opposite: power is shown through vulnerable love, holiness is shown through eating with outcasts, and the key to unlocking the “good life” comes with giving your life away.
This is subversive wisdom.
The Key of David did unlock some deep truths about the Divine, though humans haven’t typically wanted what’s behind that door because it looks so unlike what the rest of the world peddles as “truth,” “success,” or “the good life.”
And yet, in Advent, in these days, we’re absolutely waiting for the Almighty to show up not with a war cry, but with the wail of a baby…so why are we surprised that the Key of David would unlock a door of subversive wisdom?
As you ponder the subversive wisdom of the Divine in this time of waiting, spin Leigh Nash’s “Wishing for This.” Re-imagine the secrets, keys, and shortcuts you wish for, Beloved, in light of the babe arriving in just a few days…