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Memories are great because they give us a sense of who we are as individuals. By dipping into the past, we can often find the trajectory of our lives more easily than trying to figure it out as we go. This is why Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease: it robs the afflicted persons of their past, leaving only the present, without any context or information that brings peace or clarity.
The rest of us, by contrast, often get completely focused on our past or future that we don’t even know what the present is about! It is relatively easy for us to skate through life distracted to the point of not being engaged in the present moment. While the twin attractions of dwelling on the past and living for the future are commonplace and attractive to many of us, we can’t live anywhere but in the present moment. We cannot jump into our DeLorean DMC-12 (can you name the film reference??) and make a hasty run back to when we were children any more than we can make a sharp right turn and find ourselves in the summer of 2033. Think about it. We can spend so much energy trying to rewrite the past or imagining a glorious future that we spend our lives trying to play catch up with the moment we have just allowed to slip past us.
From a spiritual perspective, we need to remember that God can only meet us in the present moment. Yes, God was with us in our past (even when we doubted His presence) and yes, God will be with us in the future. But the God we need today is only available to us now, in the present. Ultimately, there is only NOW.
As challenging or insecure the present might feel, we are called to stay awake, to be open to the grace that is always in abundance, and to remain receptive to whatever it is God is trying to teach us. Being in the present moment requires our full attention so that we are fully awake to experience it. When we are fully present, our minds do not wander. We are focused on what is going on right now, rather than thinking about what just happened or worrying about what is going to happen next. Being present lets us experience each moment in our lives in a way that cannot be fully lived through memory or fantasy and it allows us to cultivate a space of fertile receptivity for the knowledge of God.
OK, you say, I want to be in the present, but how do I do it? How do I turn off the “mind chatter” that always seems to get in my way, seducing me into either the past or the future? Coming into the present in a mindful way is certainly overwhelming at first. The mind chatter is a reality and an obstacle to be surrendered rather than overcome. This takes practice, but when we persist, we will find a state of stillness that is as rewarding as it is frightening at times. We might feel a lack of control because we are not busy planning our next project, assessing our current situation, or anticipating the future. Instead, being present requires that we be flexible, creative, attentive, and open (at least theoretically) to being spontaneous in our response to God’s voice. It is said that each present moment is completely new, that nothing like it has happened or will ever happen again. To grasp this truth, even as a fleeting shadow, is to touch something of the Mystery of God because, as all the mystics of all the great religious traditions attest, God IS the Eternal Present. This might be easier to perceive during morning prayer or meditation, but the goal is to take that same awareness with us as we move through our day, remembering to stay as present as possible in every moment. I am not a master at doing this, I have to admit, but I do work on it and I have to say that the more effort I expend on being present, the less I live my life waiting for the future or longing for a past long gone. God is not waiting in any place but the present for me, and when I open myself to this truth, my life feels a whole lot more integrated into God’s Life.
I invite you, this week, to expend a little effort at living in the present. See if perhaps God isn’t waiting to tell you something important there!
In the Catholic tradition, living in relationship with God is referred to as “living in the state of grace.” When we are are free from those actions, attitudes and choices that place our path in opposition to the God’s Life, we live in that state of grace. That is, I think, a rather narrow experience of what it means to live in grace, and seems to limit the idea of grace to something that is more or less mechanical and not all that “amazing”, as our beloved hymn asserts. Grace exists not only within us, it is also found around us. It is the spark of divinity that lies within us that radiates warmth and love outward, touching everyone we encounter. It is the unseen hand that seems to reach down and pull us up when we need it most. And living in the state of grace has nothing to do with our feelings of worth (or un-worthiness, as the case may be) because grace is completely unearned. It is the favor of God, freely bestowed and available to us, our birthright as Christians. When we open our eyes to its pervasive presence, we find and experience grace everywhere.
Grace is in the rain bringing back the green to our drought-stricken lawns and gardens in July. It’s the unexpected lead on a perfect job or opportunity for ministry that comes from a casual conversation. Grace is what happens to someone when they miraculously escape injury; it is even the things we call “good luck”, like when we are able to get home before our tire goes flat. Grace resides in the love between two people, the gift or check that comes unexpectedly in the mail, the down comforter on our bed, and in the acts of forgiveness we bestow upon others. It is grace that moves us to go out of our way to help a stranger. In music, a grace note is the pause between notes that is so important to the pacing of a song. Grace is the state we are in when we are doing nothing but just being who we are meant to be.
Understood in this way, we are never outside the state of grace–not because we don’t make ridiculous mistakes, because we do. Not because we aren’t often falling short of our own ideals, because we do that daily. When we accept that we always exist in a state of grace, however, we are able to live our lives more graciously. Knowing we are graced gives us hope, makes us more generous, and allows us to trust that we are taken care of even when we are going through difficult times. Grace is our benevolence of heart, and our generosity of spirit. Grace is unconditional love and the beauty that is our humanity. Think of it: if our humanity wasn’t beautiful, why would God have chosen to become one with us through the coming of His Son?? When we know that we are blessed with grace, when we are confident that God’s love can never be lost to us, we can’t help but want to live our lives in God’s service.
I hope that this week brings each of you a deeper awareness of the grace that dwells within and without, helping you make it through the squalls of life.
“Well, you know, Barbara, sitting here in this dark prison cell has given me a lot of time to think. You’re right in suggesting that. I always thought that Jesus and I were on the same track, but the longer I sit here and think about it, I can see how very different we are, and frankly, I’ve had to reevaluate my life and ministry.
The first thing that now occurs to me is how different our attitudes toward life have been. Some of that, I suppose, is due to the things we were exposed to while growing up. My birth name was John Ben Zechariah, but for the past year or so, people just refer to me as “the baptizer.” John Ben Zechariah means John, son of Zechariah, but now it’s like I’m not even that person anymore. My ministry has turned me into someone else.
How did I come to believe I had a mission from God? Well, growing up as I did in the hill country of Judea, I often made my way to the desert area around the Dead Sea. There were a number of small Essene communities dedicated to purity of life. My contacts with these people became more and more frequent, so that they came to have a substantial effect on my thinking. They taught me that life in the towns and cities was corrupt, so I learned to prefer the wilderness. They taught that good Jews must be scrupulous about keeping dietary laws, so I learned to eat the food of the desert – locust and wild honey – and to avoid any compromise in diet. They trained me to realize that if I was going to service God as his emissary, I would have to give up living the easy life. So I turned away from soft clothing and took to wearing camel skins. I felt in my heart that God wanted me to live a simple and austere life, and to focus on keeping the entire Law to the letter. My family questioned me sometimes, and I think there were times when even they thought I was some kind of fanatic.
How did that differ from the upbringing of my cousin, Jesus….? Well, for one thing, Jesus had a totally different set of experiences. He grew up in a town, and he accepted the fact that most people couldn’t just pull up stakes and move out to the desert. He lived like everyone else did: he dressed as they did, ate what they ate, drank what they drank.
The town in which he grew up, Nazareth, is in the area called Galilee, a kind of commercial crossroads, which was therefore influenced by a lot of other cultures because of the trading that took place there. We used to snicker and refer to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles” because so much happened there that was just so compromised from my perspective. Jesus himself became fairly lax: he didn’t always wash his hands before eating, he went to a lot parties and dinners with people who were known sinners, and it seemed to me that he was wrong in doing this. Why did I feel this way? Well, in my opinion, if one is to take religion seriously, then it is an all or nothing proposition. You either accept every last bit of it, or you reject the whole thing. I’m not an advocate of cafeteria style Judaism!
We also had different ways of dealing with people. When I was about twenty-eight years old I felt that God was calling me to do something really big for him. I left the desert and began preaching along the Jordan River. I felt that people needed to be confronted with their sinfulness so they would repent, but first I had to get their attention. How did I do that, you ask? Well, I wasn’t timid about calling them what they were: snakes and hypocrites! I let them know that God was on the march, that the present world order was going to be destroyed by the righteous anger of God. I pointed out ways in which they were breaking God’s laws and I told them to repent because God’s kingdom was at hand. People came out to the river by the hundreds to hear the message, to repent and turn their lives around. I told them to be baptized – that is, to wash themselves in the Jordan River as a sign that they really wanted to be cleansed from their unrighteousness. Large numbers of people followed my advice.
Yes, well, that is an interesting question, Barbara, and it was a day I’ll never forget. One day, Jesus just showed up in the crowd and asked me to baptize him. This was right before he started preaching openly. Of course we knew each other, since his mother and my mother are cousins, but aside from some family celebrations, we didn’t see each other that often. We certainly didn’t hang out together because we were so different.
As soon as I saw him, it was so weird, because something inside me said, “This is the one you have been proclaiming; this is the one who is going to deliver Israel.” I was shocked and confused by this thought because if he were the deliverer, I should be baptized by him. I suggested that, but he just told me to baptize him. There was something different about the way he looked at me when he came up out of the water, and a look on his face that said he had just resolved some big question or problem. The next thing he did was to go out and live in the desert for a while. I guess he was getting his thoughts together and planning his strategy. About forty days later he returned to where I was preaching and I caught a glimpse of him in the crowd.
I was anxious to see what he would do next. Israel needed a good house-cleaning, and if I had called people snakes to get their attention, he would no doubt be even more confrontational.
But that isn’t the way he went about it. Instead of judging people, he affirmed them. Instead of convicting them of their sins, he seemed to accept people with all their weaknesses. Instead of emphasizing the law that was being broken, he stressed the love of God. Instead of keeping himself free from sinners, he included a tax collector and a terrorist among his close associates. He allowed a woman of doubtful reputation to have a place in his entourage. He said that Zaccheus, a known collaborator with the Romans, had a place in God’s love. I did not understand anything he was doing.
Not long after Jesus began his public ministry I was arrested because I criticized Herod, the ruler of our province, for taking his brother’s wife. And I get lots of time to think. Was I wrong all this time? Is Jesus right about the way he’s doing things? I wake up in the middle of the night with those questions in my mind.
Fortunately, God has helped me to resolve my doubts about Jesus and about my own calling. Some originally thought I was the Messiah, or Elijah or another prophet, but I knew I was not any of those.
“Well, then, who are you?” they insisted. For the first time my role suddenly became clear to me. I was not destined to be the leader of some great movement; I was to serve as a proclaimer of someone else. So I answered them with words from the prophet Isaiah. I said, “I am the voice of one who shouts in the desert: ‘Make straight a path for the Lord to travel.’” (John 1:20-23) My own words remind me of my role. I am not the savior of the world. I am simply a voice called to give testimony to what God is doing in the world. I have to do it my way because of who I am. If I am too direct or if I offend some people, I am sorry for that. All I have wanted to do is to get people’s attention.
What do I see in the future?? I do not know if I will ever get out of this prison cell. I feel like there is still a lot I can do, but realistically, that may not happen. And that is okay, Barbara. I have done what I was called to do. I have been that voice calling people to prepare, to make a place for God in their lives. I may not always have fully understood what God was intending to do, but I have been faithful to the best of my understanding.
Any last words for the followers of Jesus?? Look, I think my ministry has a message for all of them. I was never one to call attention to myself, rather, I kept preaching and pointing toward someone yet to come. That day by the river when I saw Jesus among the crowds, I actually did point to him and shout, “There is the lamb of God.” (John 1:36) I felt bad afterwards because two of my followers left that same day to be with him instead of me. I felt hurt, but as I prayed about it, it became clear that Jesus was meant to increase while I was destined to decrease.
So, I don’t know about any last words, really, except to say that since he is the Messiah, maybe his followers need to step up and be a voice of testimony for him. Maybe every one of them should be pointing to the one they follow, the one who makes such a difference in their lives. I did it in my way, the only way I knew how. Maybe it’s time for them to do it their way, because you know, Barbara, in the end, God is going to make it all work out right.”
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,200 times in 2013. If it were a cable car, it would take about 53 trips to carry that many people.
In the early months of my marriage, I wasn’t all that concerned with my career or what it was God was calling me to become. I was living in the moment, like all 20 year old men perhaps, wanting to finish college, needing to make enough money to survive on, but generally, not overly concerned about life in general. But then came the night of Christopher’s birth, when after 40-some hours of labor, I was able to look into the deep blue eyes of my son. My son!
And something changed forever as I held the silent baby in my arms and stared in awe into his eyes. I realized that he was a part of me, even if he was better than I deserved. And at that moment, a small voice inside me said, “Dude, this isn’t all about you anymore. You need to get focused and start living like somebody, because HE is somebody!” It was, in the words of Thomas Long, a “holy disruption”—in other words, a singular interrupting grace from God that changes us for the rest of time and eternity.
This helps me appreciate what it was like for Joseph. His life was going just the way he expected. He was living a quiet life in the quiet little town of Nazareth, working hard to make a living, trying to be a faithful and obedient Jew. He was betrothed to Mary, which meant they were legally bound to one another, and their relationship could only be broken by a decree of divorce, even though they had not yet finalized their marriage. They were not yet living together as husband and wife.
So I can imagine how shocked, angry, and embarrassed Joseph must have been when he got the news that Mary was pregnant. He knew that he wasn’t the child’s father! He figured Mary had been unfaithful and that the only way to avoid public disgrace was to divorce her. But Joseph was a kind and fair man, who didn’t want Mary to be publicly shamed either. He could have made a big fuss, and Mary would have been subject to the death penalty under Jewish law, but, instead, as Matthew tells us, Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly”.
At that moment, Joseph thought his life had taken a disastrous, embarrassing turn for the worst. But then he discovered he had experienced “a holy disruption”. God stepped into his life, and changed it, sending Joseph in a new and positive direction. Joseph simply looked reality in the eye and chose to trust God to change his life forever.
This idea of the Eternal God becoming human is what distinguishes Christianity from all the other world religions, so the coming of Jesus Christ is the ultimate “holy disruption,” and it shows us God’s deep, intense commitment to the world God created. We call this God “Emmanuel”, to remind ourselves that God really wants to be with us. No matter what else we might do, no matter what we experience, no matter where we go, Our God already knows and understands.
In his book The Greatest Generation, Tom Brokaw tells the story of Mary Wilson, a World War II hero. When the Allied Armies got bogged down in the southern boot of Italy during that war, they attempted a daring breakout by launching a landing on Anzio Beach. However, the Allies got pinned down at the beach and were almost driven back into the sea.
Mary Wilson was in command of 51 nurses who made that landing. At one time, bullets ripped through the tent in which she was assisting a battlefield surgeon. The situation got so bad that arrangements were made to evacuate all the nurses. But Mary refused to leave at the time when her skill was needed most. As she told her story to Mr. Brokaw, she related, “How could I possibly leave those troops there? I was part of them!” This is what God says about us at every moment of every day.
And that holy disruption continues even now. The same One who came into the lives and hearts of Mary and Joseph is the same One that keeps on coming to us. And because this is true, we should never be surprised by “holy disruptions” that God causes in our lives! William Willimon tells the story of a young woman whom he served as campus minister of Duke University:
“Her enthusiasm and excitement were self-evident. ‘I love, I really love, teaching those kids, and they love me,’ she bubbled.
“I had been in on long conversations with her about what God intended her to do with her life. She had decided to offer herself to Teach America, and that organization had placed her in a miserable little school out in an impoverished rural area of the South.
“She obviously loved it, and was surprised how much she loved it, and how much the children loved her. It was wonderful!
“’Wonderful,’ she agreed, ‘and also more than a little scary. What if God really is working through me? What if this is how God expects me to spend the rest of my life?”
Those were precisely Joseph’s questions, when that holy disruption entered his life. These are OUR questions as well, aren’t they? We’re afraid that God really IS working through us. We’re terrified that God is asking something really BIG from us and before we jump in, we want to pause and try to find a loophole, an excuse, an explanation that will allow us to say “no” to God with a clean conscience.
Emmanuel God comes to us all the time, challenging us in little and big ways to be better than we ever thought we could be. God’s holy disruptions are everywhere in our past histories, and they will continue as long as we are on this earth. Our challenge, then, is to respond like Joseph: with faith, with surrender, with joy as we answer the call to serve our God.
This is one of the deep truths of Christmas, that God is truly with us, disrupting our lives as He wills, calling us to live more deeply and more faithfully in a transfigured reality. So, don’t be surprised at all at God’s willingness to disrupt your plans. It happened to Mary and Joseph. It happened to this priest when he was a young dad. It happened to the young woman considering a calling to teach. It happened some 2,000 years ago when God decided to enter into our living and our hurting by becoming one of us, in the flesh.
Desperation and fear. The kind of fear that nearly paralyzes, the kind of fear that nightmares are made of—yet, this present terror wasn’t just nightmare, it was reality. He had never dreamed that this would be the case. Had he been told that one day troops would be searching for him, that those who were in power would want him dead, that he would be making his way across hostile territory at the mercy of those who might offer him shelter, at the mercy of those who might turn him over to the authorities, he would have laughed. No laughing now.
He knew he was traveling in danger: how does one keep a hungry child quiet? How does one explain the reasons to a young mother? How does one keep moving silently through the wilderness, trying to find food where one can, trying to skirt the patrols of marauding soldiers, the expanse of wilderness, the slithering and ravenous creatures, the biting insects, and always… the fear?
Each day cascaded into the following day and their exhaustion grew. But each day, each step, brought them closer to their goal – a place that might offer safety, a place which might offer a refuge, at least for awhile. He did not know whether there would be those in this other place that might welcome them. All Joseph knew was that out of the darkness, God had called to him and he had placed his hope in the hands of the God he loved.
As I thought about our scripture text this week, I was overcome by how very real all this is – especially in contrast to the story up to this point. Sometimes in the days of Christmas, we tend to lose touch with the realness of the gospel, the realness of the life of Christ. I think we become disconnected because ours is by and large, the realm of the tangible, where we live our lives—not living in a place of miracles,
but a place of anxieties, joys, challenges, and grind of daily life.
And in today’s text, we see that the new born infant and family find themselves in exactly the same reality – facing a very real threat to their survival, facing a very real King Herod who sees his rule placed in jeopardy because of their existence.
We see a family facing fear, facing the unknown, facing the possibility of death. We see a very real circumstance, a circumstance of distress, a circumstance of human tragedy which, in one form or another, enters into the life of our reality each and every day. Gone are the host of angels, gone is the proclamation of shepherds. Gone is the shining star and gone is the supernatural event where even the heavens obey.
Instead, we are given a picture of a family fleeing for their life, the massacre of innocent children, and the nightmare and destructive force of power wielded without regard to justice. We see a world, not at peace, but in turmoil. We see a family, not at rest, but in crisis. We see a baby, not sweetly lying in a manger surrounded by God’s gentle animals, but a child being rushed across a dangerous wilderness in a frantic flight for survival.
So then, (pause) after all the miraculous power displayed in the story up until this point, I think a very real response from us might be – “Well, what happened to God?” “What happened to God?”
The answer is this: God has come to be with us.
Solidly with us, for here we discover a God who refuses to stay planted in some cosmic realm of the supernatural. Here we discover a God who refuses to forego the messy parts of our human condition. Here we discover a God who so deeply connects with us that this God becomes a refugee.
God is not a God who sits on some ethereal throne away from us, keeping a safe distance. God is not a God who says, “Look, I know you all have it hard down there but don’t worry, if you live the right way and believe the right stuff, I won’t have to send you to hell and one day things will be better. ” Instead, God is the God who enters the world and suffers with us–the God who becomes a refugee, and flees with his parents through a harsh wilderness. This God suffers with us.
And that changes everything. For there is no pain that we might undergo that God does not also undergo. There is no fear that we might feel that God does not also feel. There is no confusion that we suffer that God does not also suffer. Because God chooses to live with us, and God chooses to become a refugee.
Just as Jesus traveled with Mary and Joseph, experiencing the fear and concern of his parents, Jesus also travels with us through our own heartache and anguish. In this, I am reminded of my grandmother, Pearl, on the night her husband, Jack, my grandfather passed away. He had been slowly dying of terminal cancers for many months, and in the final month of his life, it had metastasized to his brain, and he was in and out of consciousness. The call came while I was at work one evening that if I wanted to say goodbye, I would have to come immediately. I raced to the hospital, had several minutes alone with him in his room and I said what needed to be said. Shortly thereafter, my grandmother and the rest of the Holland and Gebert tribe showed up and, surrounded by everyone he loved Jack slipped away peacefully as thick white snow flakes tumbled gently to the ground outside his window. It was Pearl, now a widow, who comforted each of us individually, promising to love us that much more since Jack was gone. And when my turn came, she held me close and whispered, “It’s been a really good day, hasn’t it?” She didn’t need to explain what she meant. Her faith wasn’t something she talked about with theological constructions, or abstractions or philosophical underpinnings. For her, it was a “good day” because the God who had always walked with her and with Jack had kept His promise, and Jack had had the best send off imaginable.
You see, Emmanuel, God with us, who has entered our world in the person of a little boy, this child who became a refugee in Egypt, the same one who knows pain and loss firsthand, had walked with Pearl every step of the way, sharing her joys and sorrows, laughter and tears. God made it possible for her to know that same hope and to proclaim on the day she was left to live the rest of her life without Jack, that this day, this day was a good day.
God comes to us to share our struggles and He invites us to share the struggles of others we encounter on the journey. Not because then we can bully them into becoming Christians. Not because maybe they’ll have some money someday and can repay us. Not because they might someday become members of our congregation. We are called to do these things that we ourselves might become “converted to compassion”, as Richard Rohr says. If we allow Jesus to change us so we can see God in the most unlikely people, then maybe, just perhaps, we might be able to recognize the God who dwells in our own poverty, the God who dwells in our own brokenness, the God who dwells in that place where we run from our fears, in that place where we, too, become a refugee from ourselves.
And with a little grace, perhaps, in those places where we are the most hurt, the most humble, in those places of our inner world where we are in solidarity with all the hurting people of our outer world, we will discover that just as Jesus becomes one with their pain, Jesus becomes one with our pain.
Advent is the time of preparing for Christmas, but also a time to reflect on where we are in the process of living in the Reign of God right now. As I said yesterday, changes for the good are often imperceptible, but like John the Baptist, we see with the eyes of faith that God is already turning the world to His dream for us. Not being able to see God’s working clearly might fool us into thinking that we need to try to speed up the process. Certainly with all the Christmas shopping at the malls and shops, it does sometimes seem like good things come to those who hurry!
In this country, we measure a life’s value by its productivity. As a result, we get caught up in the haste to the point that our life feels like it’s on fast forward. We even feel the need to increase our speed to keep up with expectations, so we cram as much activity as possible into the shortest periods of time. We disregard our natural rhythms and our spiritual nature because it seems we don’t have time to do everything. The catch is that the more rushing around we get caught up in, the further we have to go to find satisfaction and inner peace. Racing through life, speeding through projects lead only to more projects and goals and opportunities to rush. That is why we need Advent.
Slowing down allows us to not only savor our experiences as blessings from God, but also it allows us to fully focus your attention on the good things we are trying to accomplish. While it is certainly true that God continues to talk to us, we’re running around so frantically sometimes that we don’t really hear what He’s trying to teach us. Advent reminds us to slow down, to be more intentional, to get things accomplished more efficiently and with greater attention to our work and our relationships. Slowing down also lets us live in the present…and that is where God is for us. Not in the past, not in the future, but in the present. Slowing down and accepting the reality of the slow movement of the Reign of God allows us to let go of our own preconceived ideas of what that Reign looks like. We can choose to let go of the fast forward stresses, and allow our spirits and bodies to become centered and grounded.
Think of it this way: slowing down is like going to the beach and rushing to get in a quick swim, a quick game of Frisbee with the kids, a quick lie down in the sun, and then rushing home to re-engage with our stressful life. What we should be doing is taking our time at the beach, drinking in the sounds and smells and sensations of sharing the day with nature and our family. It’s the difference between a quick utilitarian bath as opposed to luxuriating in the bathtub and truly embracing the opportunity to relax. It’s the difference between grabbing fast food at a drive-through window and lovingly preparing a meal from fresh ingredients for people we love. Slowing down lets us become more absorbed in the good we are doing: the food tastes better, the books we read are more nourishing, and the relationships we nurture are made more life-giving.
Slowing down, especially during the hectic holiday season, allows us to opt out of the frenzied pace of the people buzzing around us so we can begin moving at a pace that is deliberate, considered, and worthy of God’s confidence in us. There will still be occasions when we will consciously choose to live on fast-forward again, but we can make this a conscious choice instead of merely living on auto-pilot. Learning to slow down will no doubt take some practice for some people, but if we can slow down long enough to really try it, we may be surprised with how much fuller our lives will be and how much real peace we can hold.
Wishing you a slooooooow week,