Light Takes on Flesh — The Fourth Sunday of Advent
God of All Mercies — The Fourth Monday of Advent
- Luke 3
Jesus’ Forgiveness — The Fourth Tuesday of Advent
- Luke 1:26-38
- White Lily
Shepherd of Our Souls — The Fourth Wednesday of Advent
- Matthew 2
The Baby in Bethlehem — Christmas Eve
- Luke 2
The Lion Who is a Lamb — Christmas Day
- John 1
God Incarnate — The Third Sunday of Advent
- 1 Samuel 16-17
- Shepherd’s Crook
Poor for Our Sake — The Third Monday of Advent
- 1 Kings 17-18
- Stone Altar
Branch of the Lord — The Third Tuesday of Advent
- 2 Kings 18-19
- An Empty Tent
The One we Seek — The Third Wednesday of Advent
- Isaiah 6-9
- Fire Tongs with Hot Coal
Jesus the Living Water — The Third Thursday of Advent
- Jeremiah 7-9
Rivers of Living Water — The Third Friday of Advent
- Habakkuk 1-3
- Stone Watchtower
Making All Things New — The Third Saturday of Advent
- Nehemiah 1, 6, 13
- City Wall
A Virgin With Child — Second Sunday of Advent
- Isaiah 9
Immanuel, God With Us — Second Monday of Advent
- Genesis 37
- Coat of Many Colors
Good News! — Second Tuesday of Advent
- Exodus 20
Jesus the Burden-Lifter — Second Wednesday of Advent
- Numbers 6:22-27
Jesus the Shepherd — The Second Thursday of Advent
- Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho
Jesus the Healer — The Second Friday of Advent
- Judges 6-8
- Water Pitcher
A Redeemer for His People — The Second Saturday of Advent
- 1 Samuel 9-10
But when you hear and accept this it is not your power, but God’s grace, that renders the Gospel fruitful in you, so that you believe that you and your works are nothing. For you see how few there are who accept it, so that Christ weeps over Jerusalem and, as now the Papists are doing, not only refuse it, but condemn such doctrine, for they will not have all their works to be sin, they desire to lay the first stone and rage and fume against the Gospel.
I wish you could see what I see sitting here. In my reading nook. Next to me a sweet schnauzer warms my legs. In the next room, a gentle husband snoozes. Upstairs the sleepy preschooler has conked out for his Sunday afternoon coma, and the silly kindergartner tries his best to keep quiet in his own room. But I hear the leaping off the bed and the happy dancing directly above me.
I see our Christmas tree. Lit. A miracle in itself since just last night the sentimentally appointed pinester was dark due to a malfunction somewhere in its dozen strands of light. From my point of view, the Hubby divined the exact problem (blown light fuse) and fixed it effortlessly. Yesterday’s dead car battery, however, needed Geico’s help. And the vintage Lionel that usually circles the tree couldn’t be fixed without parts, so it waits for us next year. We were electrical Schleprocks yesterday.
But between me and the tree, I see, for the first time in our home, a single advent candle burning brightly. The Candle of Hope. I cobbled together a wreath of velvet leaves I made for Elise’s birth nine years ago and some wool leaves I cut from my old felted sweater. An evergreen of a different sort. All leaves intended for another purpose, resurrected for celebration.
We sang Christmas songs this morning at church. Imagine that — singing Christmas songs during the Christmas season. If you’ve never been a independent, fundamental Baptist, you have no idea what a gift that is. You see, Advent is a big no-no. And you don’t sing Christmas songs until the week of Christmas. Or maybe the two weeks before. And even then, the truly spiritual sing them almost grudgingly. Because Christmas is Catholic (i.e. pagan) and extending the Christmas season is commercial, we really should just ignore it altogether. The pious do!
I can’t even tell you how many Christians I know who refuse to celebrate the holiday at all. I think, in fact, Charles Dickens wrote a novel about just such a person.
But deep down, we want to anticipate and celebrate. We want an old ritual that connects us all to a Story grander than just our own. We want to sing!
Last night, we watched an old Ken Burns special on the Shakers – the mostly 19th-century agrarian sect which took in orphans and made the most simplistically elegant furniture imaginable. Burns’ hagiography brushed past all their ideological problems — that Mother Ann taught that Original Sin was sexual intercourse (and so they were celibate) and that God was both male and female with Jesus being the male manifestation and Mother Ann being the final female manifestation and Christ’s Bride. And, of course, that they must discipline their evil Body in order to let the wholly good Spirit reign.
Instead Burns highlighted their seemingly beautiful straining, struggling, and striving toward perfection. And in 1840 it looked like they had made it. They were booming. They were taking in the poor and homeless. Their industry and craftsmanship was admired and profitable. Their ethic, however, was tailored to a 19th-century agrarianism and could not survive life in the industrialized 20th century. And now in the 21st century, there are only three living Shakers left.
Sound familiar? It’s eerily familiar to me. Scarily familiar. In grad school, I read all about the Shakers and all the utopian sects born out of the Second Great Awakening (most of whom came from the Burned-Over District). And I empathize with all of them. I understand the appeal of perfection — that if I make my work (mothering, knitting, or homemaking) pristine enough and sincere enough, I’ll build an American ziggurat to God. I understand the appeal of the bifurcated thinking — that the industrialized world is evil and that my industrious domesticity is righteous. I understand the appeal of defining sin as out there instead of in here – that my containing evil makes my perfection attainable. I understand the appeal of being peculiar — that doing the hard thing and the unexpected thing will woo people to me/us/God. Whether the hard thing is celibacy or modesty or Scroogery.
What a different Story I heard this morning! That God comes to me and I don’t work my way toward Him. That His love is greater than my sin. That doing good comes because Jesus has made us good. That the first Advent guarantees the second. That Jesus is King. Now!
There’s no room for the curmudgeon in that Story!
The kindergartner has just been freed from his quietness. Daddy bounded down the stairs carrying him piggyback. And the preschooler followed with a big case of bed head. We all have the evening to rest together (and fix the lights on the tree again because another fuse just blew). Three years ago on this day we would have already been headed to a church service or a rehearsal or some such duty. Straining, struggling, and striving toward some illusion of perfection.
I laugh at the irony. Our reactionary anti-Catholic shunning of all things Advent has still duplicated the identical medieval religious feudalism. And our dispensationalist adventism won’t touch an extended celebration of the first Advent.
But I’ll light my Candle of Irony on another day. Today is the Candle of Hope.
This is what is meant by “Thy king cometh.” You do not seek him, but he seeks you. You do not find him, he finds you. For the preachers come from him, not from you; their sermons come from him, not from you; your faith comes from him, not from you; everything that faith works in you comes from him, not from you; and where he does not come, you remain outside; and where there is no Gospel there is no God, but only sin and damnation, free will may do, suffer, work and live as it may and can. Therefore you should not ask, where to begin to be godly; there is no beginning, except where the king enters and is proclaimed.
Reposted from A Time To Laugh.
God’s Love for Us — First Sunday of Advent
- 1 Samuel 16:1-13
- The Tree itself
God’s command to love each other is required of every man.
Showing mercy to a brother mirrors his redemptive plan.
In compassion He has given of His love that is divine;
On the cross sins were forgiven; joy and peace are fully thine.
Come in praise and adoration, all who on Christ’s name believe.
Worship Him with consecration, grace and love will you receive.
For His grace give Him the glory, for the Spririt and the Word,
And repeat the gospel story till all men His name have heard.
The Promise of a Son — First Monday of Advent
- Genesis 1-2
- A sunshine
The Kindness of God — First Tuesday of Advent
- Genesis 3
The Hope of All Nations — First Wednesday of Advent
- Genesis 6-8
The Light of the Nations — First Thursday of Advent
- Genesis 12:1-7
The Light of the World — First Friday of Advent
- Genesis 22
The Brightness of His Light: First Saturday of Advent
- Genesis 27-18
It’s been eight years since we said goodbye to our Elise. I still get anxious as June comes to an end. I get urpy when the starry bunting goes up for sale. I still feel wistful when we watch the fireworks in uncomfortable lawn chairs. It still feels like someone’s missing.
I still try to make her extra short life meaningful and happy. I’ve smocked some dresses for other little girls who’ve gone to Heaven before their first breath. I try to do it every year, but once my little brood on Earth doubled, I had a hard time finishing. I started one dress three years ago (!) that I’m determined to finish this summer.
But my grief has changed. I’d like to think it’s “aged.” Like wine. Sweeter.
All because of these little people around me.
When they see a little girl in a picture book, Isaac explains to his brother, “Gavin, that’s Elise!”
When he asks about Heaven, he imagines that her house “smells like grapes.”
When they look at my baby charm bracelet, they ask about each charm — the ones for themselves and for their siblings in Heaven. I explain that they for sure had an older brother in Heaven.
“What’s his name?” Isaac wonders.
“Well, we didn’t name him, honey, because we didn’t get to know him enough. What do you think his name is?”
He thinks. For a long, long time. “Sonic. Yes, Sonic!”
Awhile back I told them that when they find a penny on the ground, that’s Elise saying “hello!” This helps them and me. They feel connected to their sister and it helps me remember. And it saves me from having to lean over to pick up any change we find.
On a recent and long car ride, Isaac pensively decided, “Mommy? I think that Papa and Sonic are sending me pennies from Heaven too.”
He is planning a party for Elise’s birthday. “She’s never seen a train movie. So I think it should be trains. . . . and red. She needs a red cake!”
Celebrating is so easy for him. So joyful. I think, thanks to these little ones, my grief is growing up to be more like theirs. It’s maturing to be more like a child’s.
A foretaste of Heaven, if you ask me.
Awhile back I read Phil Yancey’s first chapter in Soul Survivor. I was floored. The world he described was so alien to me. I grew up in Detroit, and he grew up in Atlanta. Racism in Detroit is more unspoken — an undertow of white fear and flight keeps the civic tension just below a simmer. Racism in Atlanta in the middle of the last century was unashamedly overt and outspoken. Yancey was raised hearing that the “dark races” were the result of God’s curse. In his native Georgia the gas stations all had three bathrooms for white men, white women, and colored. The museums set aside one day a week for “coloreds” to attend. Yancey remembers buying a Lester Maddox “Junior” size souvenir pickax handle similar to the ones that policemen used on demonstrators. He witnessed the KKK parades.
I, of course, had read those descriptions before. My parents had even mentioned to me how startled they were by the segregation when they drove through Georgia on their honeymoon in the 50s. White Northerners really have no idea. We’re kind of dumb like that. And we can move easily between our white world in Detroit and South Carolina–even if we do have a ’ski’ at the end of our names–and the only culture shock we feel is the sweetness of the tea we’re served or the quaintness of the drawl we hear.
But that was a long time ago, I always reasoned. That kind of racism is for old people or stupid people, right? That’s for people who are absolutely not like me, right? . . . RIGHT??
That’s why Yancey’s account still sends chills down my spine. He grew up a “New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillenial, Dispensational, fundamental” Protestant just like me. He attended some unnamed Bible college in South Carolina that forbid interracial dating and marriage. Scratching my head, I searched my employer’s records for Yancey’s name–without success. Was he talking about BJU?
Connecting the dots wasn’t that hard. Whether or not Yancey attended BJU wasn’t the point. This was the South and the so-called religion that created BJU. I couldn’t distance myself from it any further. This was the ideology that bore the system in which I lived, worked, ministered, and was raising my family.
Read Yancey for yourself.
When I visited Mendenhall in 1974, a sign welcomed me to town: “White people unite, defeat Jew/Communist race mixers.” I asked John Perkins [Yancey's African-American friend] to show me an example of racism in action. “When I write your story, people are going to tell me everything has changed,” I said. “The civil rights bill was ten years ago. Is there still overt discrimination?”
Perkins thought for a minute and suddenly his face brightened: “I know — let’s integrate the Revolving Table restaurant!” We drove to an elegant restaurant famous for its mechanized Lazy Susan, which slowly revolves in the center of a huge table, bearing platters of blackeyed peas, squash, cabbage, sweet potatoes, chicken and dumplings, and other Southern favorites. When we sat down, the white diners all glared at us and then, as if at a prearranged signal, got up and moved away to smaller tables. Except for Perkins and me, no one in the restaurant spoke for the next hour. I ate uneasily, glancing over my shoulder, expecting a nightstick. When I paid the bill and commented on the delicious food, the hostess took my money without responding or even looking me in the eye. I had the tiniest glimpse of the hostility Perkins had lived with all his life.
Two months later, when I published my article on John Perkins, the Mississippi branch of the Christian organization I worked for passed a resolution demanding that I be fired for stirring up bad memories. “Things have changed now,” they said. “Why dig up the past?”
Why indeed? Almost three decades have passed since my Missisisippi visit, and the great civil rights victories are nearing the half¬century milestone. We live in a new century now, a new millennium even, and much has indeed changed. Nowadays, black patrons in Mississippi can eat wherever they want, drink from any water fountain, sleep in any motel. The victories that Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evans, Bob Moses, John Perkins, and many others fought for were won — legally, at least — although they waited a full century after the Emancipation Proclamation. Progressive Southerners from Georgia, Arkansas, and Texas have served as president. Black visitors can attend white churches at will, though they seldom want to. All these dreams seemed unattainable to Martin Luther King, Jr., just four decades ago. As a token of the momentous changes, the nation now pauses each year to honor King himself, object of so much controversy during his lifetime, on a national holiday. He is the only African-American, the only minister, and indeed the only individual American so honored.
The victories did not come easily, and most did not come at all during his lifetime. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, an uneasy rival of Dr. King, kidded him in 1963 that his methods had not achieved a single victory for integration in Albany or Birmingham. “In fact, Martin, if you have desegregated anything by your efforts, kindly enlighten me.”
“Well,” King replied, “I guess about the only thing I’ve desegregated so far is a few human hearts.” He knew that the ultimate victory must be won there. Laws could prevent white people from lynching blacks, but no law could require races to forgive or love one another. The human heart, not the courtroom, was his supreme battleground. As one of those changed hearts, I would have to agree.
King had developed a sophisticated strategy of war fought with grace, not guns. He countered violence with nonviolence and hatred with love. King’s associate Andrew Young remembers those turbulent days as a time when they sought to save “black men’s bodies and white men’s souls.” Their real goal, King said, was not to defeat the white man but “to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority…. The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community.” And that is what Martin Luther King, Jr., finally set into motion, even in born racists like me.
Despite the moral and social fallout from racism, somehow the nation did stay together, and people of all colors eventually joined the democratic process in America, even in the South. For some years now, Atlanta has elected African-American mayors, including civil rights leader Andrew Young. Even Selma, Alabama, has a black mayor, who in the year 2000 defeated the mayor who had held office since the notorious march. And old “Segregation forever!” George Wallace appeared in his wheelchair before the black leadership of Alabama to apologize for his past behavior, an apology he repeated on statewide television. When Wallace went on to apologize to the Baptist church in Montgomery where King had launched the movement, the leaders who came to offer him forgiveness included Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and the brother of the murdered Medgar Evers.
In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention, 150 years after forming over the issue of slavery, formally repented of their long-term support of racism. (A pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church responded, “Finally we have a response to Martin Luther King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham City jail’ in 1963. Too bad it’s thirty-two years too late.”)
Even the large Baptist church I attended in my childhood learned to repent. When I attended a service several years ago, I was shocked to find only a few hundred worshipers scattered in the large sanctuary that, in my childhood, used to be packed with 1,500. The church seemed cursed. Finally the pastor, a classmate of mine from childhood, took the unusual step of scheduling a service of repentance. In advance of the service he wrote to Tony Evans and to the shunned Bible professor, asking their forgiveness. Then publicly, painfully, with African-American leaders present. he recounted the sin of racism as it had been practiced by the church in the past. He repented, and received their forgiveness. Although a burden seemed to lift from the congregation after that service, it was not sufficient to save the church. A few years later the white congregation moved out to the suburbs, and today a rousing African-American Congregation, the Wings of Faith, fills the building and rattles its windows once more.
Observers of the South sometimes speak of it as “Christ-haunted.’ Perhaps they should speak of it as “race-haunted” as well. All of us, white or black, who grew up in those days bear scars. Some black people, like John Perkins and Bob Moses, bear physical scars. We whites bear spiritual scars. Although I have not lived in the South for thirty years, I live with its memories, like the medieval murderers who were forced to wear the corpses of their victims strapped to their backs. The entire nation bears scars. Who would suggest that we have achieved anything like “the beloved community” King longed for?
I have visited King’s old church in Atlanta, Ebenezer Baptist, and sat in tears as I saw through new eyes the moral center of the black community that gave them strength to fight against bigots like me. I was on the outside in those days, cracking jokes, spreading rumors, helping sustain a system of evil. Inside the church, and for a time only inside the church, the black Community stood tall. My eyes, blinded by bigotry, could not see the Kingdom of God at work.
A few years before his death, King was asked about mistakes he had made. He replied, “Well, the most pervasive mistake I have made was in believing that because our cause was just, we could be sure that the white ministers of the South, once their Christian consciences were challenged, would rise to our aid. I felt that white ministers would take our Cause to the white power structures. I ended up, of course, chastened and disillusioned. As our movement unfolded, and direct appeals were made to white ministers, most folded their hands–and some even took stands against us. . . .
Only one thing haunts me more than the sins of my past: What sins am I blind to today? It took the greatness of Martin Luther King, Jr., to awaken the conscience of a nation in the last century. What keeps us in this new century from realizing the beloved community of justice, peace, and love for which King fought and died? On the wrong side of what issues does the church stubbornly plant its feet today? As King used to say, the presence of injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Occasionally, grace and power descend on great and flawed leaders to convict and lead us on. In the end, it was not King’s humanitarianism that got through to me, nor his Ghandian example of nonviolent resistance, nor his personal sacrifices, inspiring as those may be. It was his grounding in the Christian gospel that finally made me conscious of the beam in my eye and forced me to attend to the message he was proclaiming. Because he kept quoting Jesus, eventually I had to listen. The church may not always get it right–and it may take centuries or even millennia for its eyes to open–but when it does, God’s own love and forgiveness flow down like a stream of living water.
Cross-posted at A Time To Laugh
Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.
God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish;
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.
Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.
Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.
Lo, their very hairs He numbers,
And no daily care encumbers
Them that share His ev’ry blessing
And His help in woes distressing.
Praise the Lord in joyful numbers:
Your Protector never slumbers.
At the will of your Defender
Ev’ry foeman must surrender.