upper room daily devotions

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Oddity of Christmas Eve

With Christmas Eve, Christians fall into a rather odd tradition of waiting for a Prince (of peace), a King, and a pauper (He was, after all, born in manger under threatening political circumstances). Let no one convince you that what we do is rational or what we celebrate is normal. Let no one rob you of the wonder of a child born into a feeding trough who becomes nourishment and strength for our world. Let no one explain away the peculiarities of this holy day. It is odd, indeed. We sit vigil to welcome a king born in lowly estate, and we pray with all that we have that his reign of peace will finally come to all peoples living under all flags. We sit vigil to experience God's holy breath that spoke creation into being miraculously become flesh. The holy and everlasting Divine breaks into our imperfect and finite existence to dwell with us in our suffering and to lead us to life eternal - life wholly and fully lived. O come, o come, Emmanuel.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Advent Theme

This past July I was appointed to a different congregation. That means that this year Advent is a brand new experience. This year I am in community with a whole new bunch of folks as we prepare for, wait for, and anticipate the birth of the Christ-child. So, since this has been a season of entering into new community, our Advent theme has been [ENTER].

We started the first week with [Enter the Challenge]. We talked about the challenges presented by scriptures that portend the end of things when we are ready for happy and hopeful scriptures about the beginning of things. We explored how staying with the challenging scriptures can lead us to a more mature faith and a deeper understanding of the incredible grace that God extends to the world by choosing to enter into it radically and fully.

Advent 2 was called [Enter the Reality]. We invited a speaker to come and share about Mary's Place and the Church of Mary Magdalene, which serve homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle. A woman shared about her journey from a life of homelessness and hopelessness. She now lives in a home and has been reunited with children from whom she had been separated. She stays active at Mary's Place as a mentor and example of what change can occur. Reality is something we often try to escape, but faith keeps us radically present in reality. God is radically present in reality by being born into our flawed and hurting world. God enters reality and so should we.

Advent 3 brought us to [Enter the Dream]. Relying upon the lectionary scripture Isaiah 61, we explored God's dream of a healed world. We also played with the lectionary and changed the gospel reading to Zechariah's Song, which also offers a dream of a different world.

On Advent 4, we will move to the theme [Enter the Song]. Mary and her Magnificat will take center stage. What song does our world need to hear? What song is in our hearts? We will use icons to explore moving through that which is right in front of us to something sacred and wondrous. Music does this, too. Music can take complicated ideas and dry and dull words and elicit deeply powerful emotions. Music helps us move deeply into experience. This week we [Enter the Song].

And, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we [Enter the Mystery] and [Enter the Poetry]. We arrive at our destination, and we enter fully into the miracle of God with Us.

I don't know how clear these themes have been to the people in the congregation, but they have been primary for me. I am trying to enter into their lives. We are trying together to enter into ministry with each other. We are trying to enter into a new year with hope and joy and trust. It seemed [ENTERING] would be a good fit for us. It is, after all, what we are doing with one another, and it is what God is doing with us all.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Our Struggles are (Sadly) Not New

The feast day for Saint Ambrose was last week on December 7. Properly named Aurelius Ambrosius, he lived in the mid and late 300s and was the bishop of Milan. Legend has it that at his birth a swarm of bees landed on his tongue foreshadowing that he would become a great orator whose words would be sweeter than honey. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of bee keepers, bees, students, Milan, candle makers, and domestic animals. And, he was outspoken on social issues that affected the people living in the late 300s, including economic inequality and how inequality relates to the God of our scriptures.

St. Ambrose said, "Wealth, which leads men the wrong way so often, [should be] seen less for its own qualities than for the human misery it stands for... The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds—and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor! ... The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand there, confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering"
(... St. Ambrose of Milan (Aurelius Ambrosius) (339-397), De Nabuthe Jezraelite [ca.395], in Journal of the History of Ideas, v. III, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1942, XIII.56, p. 461 (see the book; see also 1 Kings 21:1-19; Luke 12:15; more at Man, Poverty, Pride, Shame, Sin, Way, Wealth, Wrong)).

Ambrose, along with many other early Mothers and Fathers, did not have and were not trapped by the language of or political and economic systems of our time. How we understand our world is a product of Modernity. We are post-Industrial Revolution. We are the children of the Enlightenment. Not them. Church Mothers and Fathers were neither capitalists nor communists, not socialists or anarchists. This nomenclature and the systems to which they refer are modern inventions. Rather, the early Church Mothers and Fathers were simply Christian. They looked at the plight of the poor in their towns and villages, and they knew that something was wrong.

To come to this conclusion, all early Mothers and Fathers had to do was turn to scripture and search their hearts. They knew that capricious wealth and voracious greed are not part of God's good kingdom. From the 8th century prophets to first century epistles, the Bible speaks against usury, wealth accumulation, latifundialization, deceptive weights and measures used against the poor, corrupt justice systems, and neglect of the most vulnerable (known in the Bible as the widow, orphan, and stranger). We are incorrect if we call leaders of the early Church socialists; they were not. They were biblicists.

Wealth, in and of itself, is not the problem. It wasn't in the Bible. It wasn't to the early Church. And, I would say that wealth isn't the problem today. The question asked in the Bible - the judgment leveled at the extraordinarily rich- concerns the manner by which wealth was accumulated. How, the prophets ask, did you become so wealthy and by what means are you protecting that wealth? Have you charged unreasonable interest on the poor (usury)? Did you confiscate ancestral lands and drive the poor from subsistence living into slavery or indentured servitude that results in a system of poverty and indebtedness that cannot be escaped (latifundialization)? With your power and privilege, did you simply cheat the poor by weighing their crops with false weights and measures in order to pay them less or to require them to produce more to pay back debt? And, when they fell into debt, were you merciful or merciless? Did you meet at the city gates to arbitrate justice and rely upon your position of power to secure a favorable outcome regardless of truth or justice? Did you take all you can, hoard all you have, and withhold from the weak and vulnerable? These are the issues that riddle our sacred texts. They are not about partisan politics. They are unconcerned with specific economic policy except insofar as those policies affect and impact the poor and weak. Once again, the problem isn't wealth but the ethics used to justify the accumulation and protection of wealth. St. Ambrose also said, "It is the poor who mine gold, though they are denied gold; they are forced to work for what they cannot keep." This is at the heart if the gospel.

To my fellow Christians who believe that the Bible is primarily or even solely concerned with spiritual matters (meaning, not physical) and the afterlife, let me refer you to the 10 Commandments, Exodus, Leviticus, the rules about Sabbath, the prophets, the Apostle Paul, the Book of the Revelation, and Jesus as given to us in the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are replete with stories, examples, and teachings about economic ethics. Why? Because God's kingdom is real; it is physical. It is lived out among people on this earth. One cannot speak about God's world without addressing the difficult details that determine how we live together.

To my sister Christians who want to cast Jesus, the prophets, and the early Church as socialists, I must also correct you. God's kin-dom does not conform to the economic models of our making. To elevate our economic systems above God (whether those systems are capitalism, socialism, communism, or anarchy) is at best foolish and, more accurately, idolatrous. We must do what the early Mothers and Fathers did - what the prophets did - we must measure our systems against God's vision. We must, of course, always be aware of cultural conventions in the Bible and avoid becoming biblical literalists. Yet there are some overriding principles in the Bible that have found themselves embraced through the ages. Like the authors of the Bible, we, too, can ask ourselves how wealth is gained and maintained. And, our answer will tell us whether to support or confront, to embrace or reject. Let's resist the easy opportunities to use God for our own political and personal ends, for God is not a means to and end. God is the ultimate end. We are not the Ultimate Being; we are laborers on behalf of the Ultimate One.

As we move through this week toward Mary's Sunday on this fourth week in Advent, I may add to this post by including more and more quotes from the Bible and the early Church about God's kingdom and economics. The problem, sadly, is that even in cyberspace there is not enough room to include all of the quotes because our struggle with economic disparity is nothing new.


"Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead" (St. John Chrysostom).

"Houses of hospitality must be built for the poor in every city of every diocese" (Council of Nicea).

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