Sunday, December 9, 2012

In the Wilderness


"...[L]ife comes only through a kind of death: a death to the old way of understanding and feeling about ourselves and others, in order to move into a more ... compassionate way of living, a way that we would not and could not create ourselves ... precisely because we did not yet ... see that our present 'self' was too narrow to hold the possibilities the Spirit was opening out for us ... [T]his darkness [is] the loving action of the Spirit drawing a person or community into a deeper and more inclusive love." ~ Joann Wolski Conn

Advent is a season of hope - a hope for a people walking in darkness, that they might see a great light. But as we examine the actual coming of Messiah, we find that the people walking in darkness did not recognize the light - and frankly did not want the kind of freedom that it offered. No, like the Israelites who were brought out of Egypt, they were not actually prepared for the Messiah and all it would cost them to follow him.

 The coming of Messiah actually led them to a very interesting predicament: Behind them was their slavery - slavery from which they had been brought out but which pursued them relentlessly - and before them was the wilderness, a place in which they would experience a new danger: hunger, thirst, wandering ...

Temptation.

The temptation to go back.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

That seems to be the predicament we face even now as we look for the coming of the Messiah in our own darkness. When he comes he reveals to us our slavery and calls us out - leading us directly into the wilderness.

What kind of deliverance is that?!?

Yet it was in the wilderness that Jesus himself was led before beginning his "ministry."

It was in a "wilderness," too, that Peter found himself tested before he began the ministry he was called to do as well.

Does God lead us into temptation?

One thing seems certain: at some point, God leads us into the wilderness - if we will follow him.

But why?

 Why would God do this? Why would God go to all the trouble of breaking into our slavery and calling us out - just to wander in the wilderness ... just to die ... in the wilderness???

It's a good question. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to have had a similar question in mind when they stood before King Nebuchadnezzar and faced an immanent fiery death. God had called them out, set them apart for himself and asked them for their obedience, their faithfulness. This request put them at odds with their culture - first in what they ate, then in how they lived, until finally it required them to break the law when the penalty was death. Why would call them out just to lead them to such a wilderness, just to lead them to certain death?

I find myself in that question. I have been called out of Egypt - but it seems to have led me to wander in the wilderness, to wander until I have been tempted to go back and pick up again the burdens of slavery. In my Advent Confession I admitted that my failure to be attentive has indeed left me with a heart weighed down by the anxieties of life. But in this confession I found words of hope:

...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:2b

The word of God came in the wilderness.

From the wilderness, Jesus came with the anointing of God, "This is my son in whom I am well pleased."

After his wilderness experience, Peter went on to testify, and on his testimony the church was established.

The true testimony of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was in their statement of faith in the midst of the wilderness,

"King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods..." Daniel 3:16-18

Even if he does not...

What powerful words of testimony to their God, that they would choose death in his name.

Death. Death in the wilderness. It casts a whole new light on the Israelites' cry: "It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" Exodus 14:12

When our options are slavery or the wilderness, which will we choose? When our choices are between serving other gods and following the Messiah to our death, are we willing to die? Because the truth is, that is what happened to the Israelites. That is what happened to John. That is what happened to the Messiah himself. And that is what happened to Peter. They were all led into the wilderness and ultimately to their own deaths.
...the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness and he went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as it is written in the words of Isiah the Prophet:
"The voice of one shouting in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way for the Lord ... that all humanity will see the salvation of God.'"
The word of God comes in the wilderness.

The gospel of salvation shouts from the wilderness.

It is in the wilderness, in death, that we have the hope of salvation, of resurrection life.

We have to be willing to leave Egypt. We have to be willing to face the wilderness. We have to be willing to die in order to testify to new life.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A Christian New Year Confession

Slavery

It is a strange topic for Advent, the beginning of the "Christian New Year," set as it is in the blooming hullabaloo of sleigh bells, Christmas cheer, the decking of the halls and fa la la.  At first glance it doesn't seem to have anything to do with what was Away in a Manger one Silent Night, you know, the Greensleeves that drew the attention of Angels We Have Heard on High, We Three Kings, and The Little Drummer Boy (they were a fashion-conscious bunch).  

Be attentive, careful, on your guard...

But maybe it is not so strange a topic after all.  It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to consider the plight of the Jews at the time that Mary and Joseph embarked upon their journey to Bethlehem, an arduous trek even for someone not so great with child, and one not pleasantly anticipated when all it was going to mean was increased taxes and the strengthened rule of a more than moderately paranoid king.

lest your hearts be weighed down...

And maybe it's not so strange a topic for the wee small hours of a new year when we consider what it actually means to be Christian.  Do we not take on this identity only when we come face to face with and confess our failures and shortcomings, when we acknowledge our limitations, sorrows, regrets - our slavery - in the hopes of finding that the Messiah has come, is coming, will come to free us? We're supposed to be anticipating, right?  Anticipating what? What does Messiah mean, anyway?  What does it mean to have God with us?

Watch out or your hearts may be burdened, dulled and desensitized by dissipation, over-indulgence, or the anxieties of life...

Luke 21:34 was the focus of the first Sunday in Advent.  It seemed a little gloomy for the season: Let's talk about heavy hearts!  Depression!  Anxiety!  Drunkenness!  And dissi ... what the heck is dissipation anyway???

Dissipation: (noun) dispersion, disintegration, a wasting by misuse, distraction, amusement, diversion

The pastor happily described it this way:
"Life flattens as we feast on trivialities."
"We are entertaining ourselves to death."

It's a great passage to consider when one is considering slavery.  In fact, it's an opportunity to have our hearts sifted, to recognize our ongoing need of Messiah, to truly long for and anticipate God With Us.  Because we are a society that revolves around feasting on trivialities, over indulgence, and anxiety.

In fact, I wondered as I read the passage if it didn't really capture everything that might enslave the human soul:

Either we give our lives over to the utterly meaningless barrage of constant stimulation until our hearts have lost all ability to experience real pleasure...

Or we plunge ourselves into one great destructive addiction... (or two ... or three)

Or we wallow in the anxious horror of the cares of every day life.

Or any combination thereof, yes?

If that doesn't sound like slavery, I don't know what is.

If that doesn't sound like the place that the very heart of Christianity asks us to start the new year in, then I don't know what Christianity is.

So, let's do this thing.  Let's dig in deep to the burdens of the heart at the start of this new year.  And let's long for Messiah.  Let's press in to the ways we are in slavery on the off chance that our lives might be completely disrupted by hope.

My personal favorite is the last one, the anxieties of life.  I am REALLY good at getting weighed down by those.  Right now I have four papers I should be writing for classes that I actually really enjoy.  But I'm not writing them.  You know why?  Because my heart is heavy.  Because apparently I did not watch out.  I was inattentive at some point and the anxieties of life, they sank their razor-sharp teeth into my precious little heart and they've been pumping it with venom ever since.  The irony is, by NOT writing those stupid papers, they just add their weight to the burdens of my heart.

So here is my Christian New Year Confession: I have been enslaved - and I don't even know how it happened.  My heart is sad and disconnected and burdened.  I long for the Messiah that came once before, that came and freed me from Egypt and brought me to a place that he had prepared for me, that called me his own and invited me to call him My God, My Rescuer, My Kinsman Redeemer, Lifter of My Head, Lover of My Soul, Husband, Friend, Partner, Hope.  This is the place in which I will wait during Advent.  I will choose to be here, to acknowledge my slavery, and to long for Messiah.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Called Out of Egypt

You watch as she folds her clothes and tucks them away in a makeshift pack.  She doesn't look at you, doesn't speak.  She just takes the last little signs of her life with you here and hides them away until they are almost all gone.

You saw the cart outside already weighed down with the items of your day-to-day existence - the jars of oil and meal, the seed for planting, the candle holders and fire starters and bags of feed for the livestock - all of it so unrecognizable outside of their regular spots around the hearth, on the table, near the bed, in the front yard.

You don't say much.  The truth is, you're not thinking much at the moment.  Or maybe it's that you're thinking  everything at once.  And the roar in your head is so deafening it is absolute silence.  

She looks at you.  There is something you don't recognize in her eyes.  It would surprise you to know that she is thinking the same thing about you.

She has stopped talking now, after months and months of discussion, months and months of prayer, months and months of preparing and urging you to prepare.  And you did some.  But the truth is, you didn't really think it would happen - not even when the Angel of Death passed through the streets.  The truth is, you had too many other things going on, too many other demands on your time, too many other things to think about - or not think about.  You have been too busy, well, living life.  And with all of the uprisings spurred on by the Troublemaker - or  Liberator, depending on who you talked to - there were plenty of extra demands.  And then there was the regular entourage of weddings and social events and, well, just the normal stuff.  Today you notice that a lot of time has passed - more than you realized.  You can't help but remember the last time she spoke:

"I have been called out of Egypt," she'd said simply.  And that was that.

Maybe you thought about her words a little as you were on your way to meet up with friends that night.  Maybe it unsettled something.  But mostly everyone was talking about it and saying lots of extreme things.  So if you thought about it that night, the truth is you probably just thought, Good for you, and maybe, I wonder if they'll have those great little cakes I like tonight.

But now it actually means something.  Now it means something to you.

"Tell me again," you find yourself saying, realizing she is still looking at you though she doesn't pause in her packing for even a moment.  You feel a little inane, but Egypt is the only frame of reference you have for ... anything.  You are a Counter in the Courts, not even a manual laborer.  You can't imagine anything but the city.  You can't imagine what kind of lifestyle could possibly exist out there.

"Tell you again?" she asks, somewhat incredulously.  "I am called out of Egypt. Life will never be the same.  Where are you called to live?"

It is the strangest conversation you think you have ever had with anyone, let alone the one closest to you in the world.  She is leaving.  And it is clear that you have a decision to make.

A decision, you wonder.  What kind of decision is it?  Shall I go live in the desert?  Shall I just pack my bags and walk out of the city gates - into oblivion?  Surely the Creator did not expect that!  I have been faithful here.  This is my life.

Sure, part of you longed for some kind of freedom.  But what kind of freedom was this?  You would have preferred the kind of freedom that would have allowed you to stay and, you know, just do what you want.  THAT would have been true deliverance - not this uprooting, not this liberation that requires you to ... give everything up, to ... come out.  What kind of freedom is that?

"I am called out of Egypt," she says again, now looking down.  And as she places the last piece of fabric and ties up the pack, it becomes clear that, if you are not called out of Egypt, she will leave you with the city.

*     *     *

Advent.  It is a time when many of us turn our attention to an old story, to the events leading up to the birth of Christ.  If a church has a strong tradition, perhaps we are invited to consider an ancient people longing for Messiah - even as we ourselves look forward to his second coming.

But there may be a few who take it a step further.  There may be a few who find their story more intrinsically intertwined with the ancient people of God.  In fact, there are some who would say that the ancient stories are, in fact, our story.

The ancient story of a people in desperate need of Messiah...

The ancient story of a people enslaved...

Okay, so what if I told you that YOU live in Egypt?  And what if I told you that advent is about being called OUT of your slavery?  More than that, it is about being called out - delivered - but not in the way you might expect, not in a way that you may even really want...

Honestly, that is the place in which the Israelites found themselves in Exodus.  They were delivered from their slavery to Egypt - Yay!  But delivered to what?  They had to walk away from everything they'd ever known, their way of life, and head into the wilderness.  Why?  For the story of a magical land of milk and honey?

Where was the milk and honey when they crossed the Red Sea and they began to get hungry and thirsty and lost and tired?

You think they were excited about being delivered from slavery? 

"Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!"  

Exodus 14:12

And that is the place in which the Jewish people find themselves as the Christ child is foretold.  You want us to believe what???  You want us to give up on all our previous notions of Messiah - of identity and freedom and deliverance - for what purpose?  For a magical Kingdom of God?  And that is going to require WHAT of us?!?

And isn't that our story?  We cry out, "God, deliver us" but the truth is we do not really want to leave Egypt.  We do not really want the Messiah to come and expose our hearts and our infidelity and call us to the kind of freedom that costs us everything.

What if you were enslaved and you didn't even know it, and what if the coming of the Messiah meant that you had to give everything up?  What if you had to give up ... smoking? Alcohol?  Desserts or junk food?  What if you had to give up soda?!  What if the coming of the Messiah meant that you were called out of ... watching tv, going to the movies, playing video games, or surfing the net?  What if it meant not getting notifications on your phone every time someone posted to your FB profile or twitter feed?  What if it meant giving yourself to God in the ways you usually give yourself to the media?  What would that even look like?  Can you even imagine it?  Or is that just crazy wilderness talk?

Maybe.  But maybe, like the Israelites, you have made your home where you are and, frankly, you're kind of okay living in Egypt.  Sure, you raise your hands on Sunday morning and sing about deliverance but only as long as you can go home and get on the computer afterward, or watch the game, or go to lunch and a movie.  Maybe, like the Jews when Christ was born, you figure you've  been pretty faithful even while doing all these other things.  You can be faithful, after all, and still look at pornography.  It's not hurting anyone.  You can be faithful giving God 10% of your time and attention and Facebook 90%.  If the coming of Messiah means the giving up my computer, well, I'd really rather that the Messiah not come...

Personally, I'd rather die in the wilderness than serve any other god.

I am called out of Egypt. My life will never be the same.  And I find myself wondering, where are YOU called to live?