Friday, January 6, 2017

On Epiphany: The Dark Story Behind Jesus' Elevation of Children

Yesterday, I walked in the door to a dispute our twins were having, likely unique to minister kids.

Noah [running towards me]: Daddy, is tomorrow Epiphany? 

Me [barely having removed my coat]: Yes. 

Noah [arms raised]: Nailed it. Told you, Lily!

Then he ran down the steps in victory.

Our family lights the Advent candles all the way through Epiphany. This way the Christ candle does not get cheated.  Also, our kids get to embrace Christmas as a season that culminates with the star that led the magi from the east to pay homage to the toddler Messiah. 

Yet there is a dark and hellish side of Epiphany. The full script of Epiphany leaves a bitter taste in our mouths after binging on the more joyous pageantry of the Christmas drama. 

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’" (Matthew 2:16-18)

This is not exactly a preferred bedtime story for young children during this holy season. While we laud God who chose to become flesh and take on the form of a baby, the incarnation came at a cost. The response to the Christ child by those thirsty for power, or anxious about losing the power they already had, resulted in mass genocide of the holy innocents who stood in the way of and were deemed infantile conspirators against an emperor who wanted nothing to do with shared or surrendered power and influence. 

And while Mary, Joseph, and the newborn king may have escaped in the middle of the night to find refuge in Egypt, "Rachel and her children" throughout the neighborhoods of Bethlehem were not so fortunate. 

Then I wonder, is this precisely the story Jesus' parents told him every year when they celebrated or at least acknowledged his birth? 

You can almost hear Mary whisper, unaware of her prophetic wisdom, "My son, you are our beloved. You are God's beloved. Yet your entrance into this world created quite a stir and has not been as beloved by the powers that press upon us from all sides. Many have already died so you may live, children even. Young ones like you. Never forget your life came at a cost. Never forget the babies of this world, the children of Bethlehem. So live and love, even offer up your own life, for all those who are threatened to have theirs taken away. And never forget the children of Bethlehem."

Jesus surely clung to the wisdom of his mother as much as he probably recited the lyrics of the song she sang while pregnant, "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly..." (Luke 1:52).

It's no wonder Jesus, the Christ Child now matured Messiah, forcefully spoke these words to his disciples who had become a blockade to little ones in their thirst for power and privilege:

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them,and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." (Matthew 18:5)
"People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." (Mark 10:13-16)
Jesus never forgot the children. Jesus knew well the horrid story of the star. 

The days ahead of us as both a nation and church, even larger world, are full of varied questions that breed great angst and maybe fear. Those in positions of power continue to press in on all sides and the future for our children is as much at stake now as it was two millennia ago. 

Dare we not allow their future to be slayed in the name of politics, privilege, phobias laced in ignorance, the preference for self-preservation and nationalism masked as patriotism, and religious assimilation to all of the aforementioned. When little children cross our borders or enter our sanctuaries, may we have the courage, integrity, and Christ-like faith to receive and protect them. When we consider the state of health care, education systems, access to clean water, the impact of the wars we fund and sustain, and increased food insecurity, may the faces of Rachel's children from Philadelphia to Aleppo, Flint to South Sudan, Standing Rock to Bethlehem affect us towards renewed activism rooted in gospel witness. 

May we have the eyes to see the revealed star hovering over the parts of God's world where children are most vulnerable. Then, may we respond to this epiphany as we remember the kingdom of God belongs to these little ones. May we be willing to adjust course and lay down our very lives for their safety and security, for their future we dare not take away. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

On Why Powers Fear Our Children: Brief Reflections This Last Week of Advent

In many ways, to bear a child is a subversive act. To deliver new life into this world- a move of defiance. It says to the powers-that-be, you cannot and will not slow the birth of resistance and the dawn of God's movement of justice and peace.

The irony that those in power the first Christmas were so threatened by young ones of the same age as my children, whose greatest weapons are legos left on the floor, temper tantrums provoked by age-appropriate irrationalism, and a rank diaper, reminds me how truly weak and insecure these tyrants are. Despite their over-compensating rhetoric, they are fragile and fickle.

Yet they must be resisted. Our children depend upon us as we imagine and dare to construct a reality contrary to their versions of empire, which are dark and futile at best.

Actually, these little ones are the agents of change the Christmas story proclaims will lead us forward.  They are the incarnation of our resistance. That just may be the reason the powers fear them most. 

These are the things I think about this final week of Advent, as I hold our newest little one- whose name means "close to God."

Praying, wherever your spirit may be this time of year, you feel such closeness in the midst of a world threatening greater and greater divisions.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

On Advent, Infertility, and Finding Space for the Other*

In a Christmas sermon delivered to inmates at a Basel prison, twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth commented on the journey of the holy family, "Thanks be to God the parents and the baby for whom there was no room in the inn found this other spot where this could happen, and indeed did happen” (Deliverance to the Captives).

They found this other spot. In this alternative space, the unexpected happened to the unlikely. 

The entire Christmas drama hinges on surprise and the unconventional. The lack of vacancy at the local inn only reinforces this truth. 

This Advent is unlike any other for our family of five. That is because we are about to become a family of six- with a due date of December 24th In many ways, the Christmas narrative has become our personal, real-life pageantry.  

It would be an understatement to say this pregnancy was an unexpected surprise. Our first three children, to include twins, were born after years of painfully battling infertility and navigating through the complexities of reproductive technology. Until their arrival, Advent was a darkened four weeks. As someone in congregational ministry, I remember fighting my way through the liturgy. So many of the stories and sacred imagery were reminders of the void we sensed and the dreams that became all the more faint with each visit to the doctor. We felt as though we did not belong in the narrative happening all around us, a narrative I was proclaiming through my vocation.  

This Advent, however, my wife carries the unexpected and the improbable. We await the birth of what we previously believed and, on many occasions, were told was unlikely to be possible…ever. As we anticipate the arrival of this little girl, who has defied all odds through her very existence, we do so with a fair share of angst, mixed with gratitude, uncertainty, and a growing list of questions. One of the more pressing logistical questions, “where will this child sleep?” There is not much room left in our over-crowded inn. We are looking for this other spot, too.

God’s preference throughout the biblical story is for the other- those who dwell on the fringe of society, the margins of communities, and are dismissed by conventional wisdom and systems of power. This includes the religious. God's self-revelation happens alongside those who cry out for deliverance, long for hope, and plead for comfort in the midst of increasing despair. The activity of God occurs in these other places like arks and parted seas, prisons and deserts, lions dens and shepherds’ fields. It even happens in the midst of battles with infertility and deep longings for children- Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth among others. 

The church must make space for those who presently battle such darkness.

As Mary and Joseph journey towards their makeshift delivery room, she sings the song she composed in the midst of a prolonged visit with her previously-barren cousin who knew such pain and void now redeemed. 
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant...He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (Luke 1:46-47, 52)
Mary knows it is not only the coming of Jesus that announces God’s solidarity with the lowly, but also the way in which the Christ child comes- in the womb of one marked as ‘other’ only to be born in the other spot behind an overly-crowded inn. Mary sings of the incarnation as God finding a spot among the other, the hungry, poor, exploited, and shamed, who now take center stage within this unfolding drama of deliverance.  

Mary’s song is a challenge to each of us at Advent. The Magnificat dares us to keep our eyes and ears open to the other spots whereby God’s love and grace may be both born and affirmed. The chorus challenges us to look out for those who feel the weight of being the other, especially in this season whereby voids and a sense of belonging are most vulnerable. The echoes of Mary’s song nudge us to find space for those frequently dismissed and ignored, who look for refuge and sanctuary among us. Even more, Mary’s song is a word of comfort to those who may wonder whose side God is on in the midst of a world most favorable to the powerful and privileged. So sing this Advent and Christmas, but sing in a way that elevates the voice and value of the other. After all, this is the song that has been sung by God’s people throughout the ages. This is a soulful song that magnifies the Lord who draws the other to the center. 

*This post was originally written for The presbytery of Philadelphia: 

Sunday, November 13, 2016

What I Would've Preached Today: On Subversion through Not Being Afraid

We don’t fully know what’s ahead. We don’t know what campaign promises the president-elect will act upon in his first 100 days. 

We don’t know what will happen related to immigration policies, foreign wars, ISIS, international trade, domestic infrastructure, law enforcement, relationships with our Muslim and LGBTQ neighbors, etc. We have about 70 days to make speculations, some more accurate than others, but we don’t really know. 

And when we don’t know, we fear. Our speculations lead us to imagine the worst. Frankly, the rhetoric of this recent election season has given the American people more than enough warrant to do just that. It’s also part of the game politicians play- even those who claim to be outsiders and anti-establishment. 

There’s really no such thing. 

What we do know, we are called to embody the same witness to the gospel alongside those who are on the margins of systems, the fringe of our communities, and the targets of abusive language of ignorance and offense that has gained a renewed platform in recent days. 

In the midst of it all, we also know we are called to echo the compassion of Christ, "do not be terrified.” (Luke 21:9). 

This is not to say there are no reasons for concern. For there are many.

Rather, this message subverts the powers-that-be and their patrons as we dare proclaim, live into, and link arms in solidarity with those who tremble in the midst of uncertainty and the crumbling of what is. We assure one another we belong to the One whose reign is always on the side of margin dwellers.

We also know we are to act in the face of our darkest fears, no matter what the law of the land may say (Luke 21:12-18). If we as the church feel so strong about gender equality, dismantling racism and all phobias, providing sanctuary for the refugee, prioritizing economic justice, leveraging peacemaking initiatives, strengthening interfaith relations, and reducing the polarization and characterization of the other (even those with whom we disagree), we must work towards these things even now. Especially now. We must ensure our own ecclesial institutions and communities model what we hope and lobby for in the State. We must beware of and reduce the plank-eye syndrome. 

This is hard yet honest work.  

When our theological convictions, which frame our witness in the world, are not shared by those in power we dare not shrink back. This is true regardless of who occupies the Oval. As some say, we hold the line and continue to carry cross. We bear witness no matter the cost. We endure, assured that in so doing we gain our very souls. 

Church, we don’t know much about what’s ahead. We can merely speculate and anticipate. 

But be careful not to fear. May we also not become that which we condemn. Rather, embrace the call of Christ that is as urgent now as it was when the earliest saints were first bid to follow. 

They endured. So must we. 

"By your endurance you will gain your souls."