Light a Candle

You find yourself glancing at the calendar and the clock with a slight sense of panic. So much to do and the days are rushing by. Busyness blinds you to the presence and the present of the Present. Decorating. Shopping. Wrapping. Mailing. Visiting. Hosting.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself constantly wondering just how much Christmas you can afford. You feel as if you dare not shut off your mental calculator and the joys of the season are clouded by the Ghost of Bills yet to come. Every gift becomes a bit of addition which, in turn, becomes an anxious subtraction.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself lost in a lonely daydream as the Ghost of Christmas Past fills your thoughts with scenes of happier holidays from days gone by. An old familiar song reminds you of friends and family no longer near at hand and your heart aches more than just a little.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself dizzy from trying to steer your way through the year-end collision of events. Reformation. Halloween. Election. Veterans Day. Christ the King. Advent. Christmas. New Year. Taxes. Fiscal Planning.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself simply feeling as if something is missing, as if you’re forgetting something, as if there must be something more.

Stop. Light a candle.

Five candles. Three blue and one pink for Advent. One white for Christmas.

First, ignite the flame of Hope, the Prophecy Candle. Let this flame remind you that God’s promises not only echo through the past but draw us toward the future. Let the light remind you that just as a feather will rise naturally above the heat of a single flame, so you, too, can be lifted without effort by the Spirit that warms and enlightens us all.

Next, light the flame of Peace, the Bethlehem Candle. Let this flame remind you that the peace of God is found in humble moments and humbler places. Let this light remind you that the real gift we all seek is something no amount of money can buy. Peace.

Then light the flame of Joy, the candle of a different color, the Shepherd’s Candle. Sing the old familiar songs of Joy and surround yourself with light and music. Dance with the Ghosts of your past and know that they are very much alive in your memories and in the presence of God. Watch the old movies, taste the old, familiar flavors. Let this light rekindle your senses and remind you that this song of Joy is eternal.

Now light the flame of Love, the Angels Candle. Let this light bring equilibrium to these days of celebration. Let it guide you through the maze of these impacted days. Let the flame of Love burn a pathway through the adiaphorous clutter. Let its warmth empower you to embrace the days. Swallow its light whole so that it shines through you.

Finally, sit in the presence of the light of Christ. Let the Candle of Christmas remind you that the most humble child born in the most unlikely circumstances bears the image and likeness of the Maker of Us All. Let it remind you that the thing that has been missing in our lives, the object of our unsettled yearning, is not a thing or an object at all, but the very Source of our Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Look Again

Luke 1:26-38

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the name of the virgin was Mary.”  If you’ve been a Christian for more than five minutes, you’ve heard these words before.  These are the opening words of The Annunciation, that part or the Christmas story we all know and love so well when Gabriel tells Mary she will become the mother of Jesus.  We know this story.  We know this episode of the story by heart.  But I wonder… When is the last time we really listened to it or read it carefully?

Look again at the opening line: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a town in the Galilee called Nazareth…”  I have always pictured Gabriel just suddenly appearing before Mary and probably startling her.  Certainly it’s depicted that way in any number of paintings.  But look at what Luke has actually written here—he is bringing the focus of the story from heaven to earth, to a specific territory, then a town, then to a person.  Gabriel comes from God to Galilee to Nazareth to Mary.  As I re-read this, I suddenly had a picture of Gabriel arriving unseen on a hilltop in Galilee then making his way down the hill past grazing goats and sheep to the road, cloaking himself to look like a traveler as he made his way into town and found his way through Nazareth’s dusty streets until he came to Mary.  Maybe she saw him coming and was watching him as he walked toward her house.  Maybe she wondered who this mysterious stranger might be as he approached and then became a bit wary as she realized he was coming directly toward her. Maybe she thought he had some business with her father. 

When you picture it this way, it opens you up to the idea that maybe angels walk among us all the time.  Maybe they emerge from heaven make their way into town then find their way through the streets until they get to where they were sent.  It makes you wonder how many times you might have walked right by an angel or sat a few seats away from one at McDonalds.  

So maybe she saw him coming, but even if Mary had seen Gabriel approaching, it really would have been a surprise when he spoke to her.  And what he said was so unusual: “Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!”

Between timidly formal translations, millions of persons repeating the rosary millions of times,  and Franz Shubert’s lovely but overly romantic musical setting of Ave Maria, the shock value of Gabriel’s greeting was bled off a long time ago.  And that’s unfortunate, because what he said rocked Mary’s world and, if we’re paying attention, should rock ours, too.  

Hail Mary, full of grace?  Not exactly.  First of all, “Hail” or “Greetings” are subdued translations of the angel’s first word to Mary.  “Chaire!” is what he says.  It can mean “greetings” or “hail” but those are timid choices.  Chaire!, which is what Gabriel says in the original Greek text, is the imperative form of Chairo – to rejoice!  Rejoice, favored one!  The Most High God is with you!  Rejoice!

No wonder Mary was “thoroughly troubled by what he said and tried to discern what sort of greeting this was.”  Some translations say she “pondered” what sort of greeting it was, but the sense of the Greek word, dialogizemai, is that she had a pretty serious inner conversation with herself as she tried to sort it out.  The word dialog is in the word and the word means inner dialog, to think or thoroughly reason through something.  It’s easy to read right past all that, or listen right past it, but this is one of the places where we really are supposed to slow down or even stop for a moment and stand a moment in Mary’s bare feet.  

Imagine what she was thinking.  Who is this mysterious stranger?  Why is he telling me to rejoice? Why is he even talking to me, which is not exactly smiled upon in our society, and why did he call me “favored one?”  Favored by whom?  What does that mean?  He said the Most High God is with me.  Why me?  What makes me so special?

Now imagine Gabriel watching her as she puzzles through his words and wonders about his intentions.  Imagine him seeing that she is thoroughly troubled by his presence and what he’s said.  Imagine him letting her take a good long moment to think before he speaks again.

“Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  That’s the second time he has told her that she is favored.  Favored by God.  

And now he will tell her what that favor brings with it.

“You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Sovereign God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his sovereignty there will be no end.”[1]

“Hang on a minute,” said Mary.  “Let’s back up to the ‘conceive in your womb’ part.”  Actually, what Mary said is better than that.  “Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I have not known a man intimately?”  In one question she does three things: she lets the angel know that she knows how babies are made, she makes it clear that she has no personal experience of that kind of relationship, and she challenges the divine messenger to explain how this impossible thing will be accomplished.  

The name Israel means “wrestles with God” or “contends with God.”  It is an important part of the tradition of Israel to question God, to ask for explanations, to challenge God or bargain with God.  Jacob physically wrestled with God.  Abraham bargained with God.  Moses tried to talk God out of using him to lead the people because he wasn’t good at public speaking.  Elijah on the mountain top begged God to just go away and let him die.  And now Mary, good daughter of Israel, says to God’s messenger, “Hang on a minute…I know how this works and what you’re describing is simply not possible under the current circumstances.”

It’s okay to argue with God.  There is a lot of precedence.  If you find yourself arguing with God, contending with God, questioning God, you’re in good company.  

“How can this be?” asks Mary.  So Gabriel explains how it can be.

And here is a place where we have missed something important in just about every English translation ever.  In Greek, the word spirit, pneuma, is gender neutral.  All our translations simply say, “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”  What we miss is this:  Mary, in Nazareth in Galilee, would have been speaking either Aramaic or Hebrew, most probably Aramaic.  In both Aramaic and Hebrew, the word for spirit is feminine.  Ruach in Hebrew.  Rukah in Aramaic.  

So what Mary heard Gabriel say would have been something like this: “The Holy Spirit, She will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born will be holy.  He will be called Son of God.”[2]

The feminine aspect of God would envelop her and bring the power of God to do the impossible.  

What does that do to your understanding of this story?  What does that do to your understanding of who God is and how God works? 

Gabriel then tells her that her pregnancy is not the only “impossible” conception.  Her kinswoman, Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years has also become pregnant.  “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary surrenders to God’s plan.  Mary surrenders to God.  And once again, most of our translations have drained most of the power out of Mary’s words by being too genteel.  Most of our translations say something like, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”  Some use a more gender-specific term; she calls herself a handmaiden or maidservant.  But what she actually says is, “Look!  The woman-slave of the Lord.  Let it happen to me according to your word.”

“Look, Angel.  See me.  See what saying yes to God, yes to this plan will make me.  You make it sound so glorious.  You tell me I’m ‘favored.’  But I know that saying yes to all this makes me a slave.  So look.  See the slave woman of the Lord.” 

Have you heard a different story now?  Have you heard this familiar story in a different way?

What is the takeaway?  For me there are four.

  • If you take time to look again at things you think you already know, you can learn a lot.  You can hear old stories in new ways.  And maybe they can speak to you in a new way to draw you deeper into the mystery of the presence of God.
  • It’s okay to wrestle with God, to debate and discuss and challenge God when God is calling or challenging you to embark on something impossible.
  • When you do say yes to the thing God is asking, God will take you at your word, so it’s best to surrender completely.  Mary understood that.
  • When God asks you to do the impossible, it helps to remember that “nothing will be impossible with God.”  And you have an angel’s word on that.

[1] Translation by Dr. Wilda Gafney, A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

[2] Ibid.

Advent

(1994)

Listen.

The thunder is approaching.

The noise of distant battle,

the clashing of Powers and Principalities rages in the 

air.

The bleating of goats sings counterpoint to the fright of sheep

as six trumpets play their fearsome harmonies,

six seals are broken, six bowls poured out,

and the distance which holds back the seventh note

is only a pause

for breath.  For thought.  For thunder.

Not so far away.

Not so far away.  The heavens are shaken.

            O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Look.

Lightening and artillery flash

across the gloaming sky.

One horseman rides a hog, one swoops in stealth,

one tops his tank with the juice of 

corn that would have fed millions,

one walks door to door, shaking hands, smiling,

spreading death.

The lamps of the foolish are burning low.

They have spent their oil in shopping,

moving from stall to stall in markets filled with dazzling

darkness,

seeking The Thing to fill their gnawing emptiness,

never seeing in their dimming sight 

The Whom it may concern.

The oil is nearly gone and the wise have not 

enough to share.

Six billion souls behold the descent 

of shadow.  Of dusk.  Of night.

Just at the horizon.

Just at the horizon.  The flames of faith are flickering.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Smell.

An acrid hint of fear

insinuated in the stiffening breeze:

a distant conflagration sweeping closer.

Fires, not of judgment but of consequence,

burn away both chaff and grain,

roaring across plains, up mountains, through forests

sucking away the breath of humankind before it is ever

breathed.

A stench of mistrust mingles with the uncollected 

garbage

strewn along city streets,

stashed in dark corners, dark alleys, dark lives

sodden with acid rains.

The smoke which rises before the Altar

spews from the barrel

of a cigarette.  Of a crack pipe.  Of a gun.

Just around the corner.

Just around the corner.  Our incense makes heaven weep.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

But listen.

A shout rends the veil of darkness

hiding the wholly holy.

Keening contractions of anguish, fear,

anticipated joy, pierce the thunder.

The Announcement, wrenched 

from the throat of an unwed teenage girl, her belly full of

wonder,

is panted in cleansing breaths

across the crowning:

“He comes

for Judgment.  For Hope.  For Help!”

Nearly here.

Nearly here.  Creation writhes in labor.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

But look.

Angels gather at the borders

to sunder with a song

the Kingdom of Consuming.

“Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Enough.

Enough for all who live.  Enough pain.  Enough greed.

Enough darkness and damnable domination.

Enough of nations, noble causes and nonsense.

Enough manipulation and murder.  Enough.

For unto you is being born the illegitimate savior

who brings your only hope for 

legitimacy,

your only hope of hope, your only plausible future,

your only real choice, 

your only second chance.

Unto you is being born 

the One who brings 

enough

to eat.  To share.  To begin anew.”

Any moment now.

Any moment now.  The world is trembling.

           O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Now taste.

Crush the tart grape,

ripe for pressing 

into the cup of pain and cleansing

which always overflows.

Chew the plain grain,

ripe for milling into the bread of journeying—

the flat bread by which we flee the Pharaohs,

escaping between their monuments into the desert.

Taste 

and see the goodness and the realness of all 

that is not yet here.

All is not ready.  All is not ready.

Come to the table which is not yet set

for the feast not yet laid.

We are anxiously awaiting You

for a supper.  For a blessing.  For a signal.

We are almost ready.

We are almost ready.  We are unmade.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Dear Pontius Pilate

Dear Pontius Pilate

John 18:33-38a

Dear Pontius Pilate,

I have spent much of this week reviewing a single moment from your life, to be specific, your brief interrogation of Jesus of Nazareth.  Surely you remember it.

One of the advantages I have, looking at this moment twenty one centuries after the fact, is that I know things you could not possibly have known. You could not have known, for instance, that this moment when Jesus stood before you was, in fact, a pivotal moment in the history of all humanity.  I’m sure that to you he just looked like another troublemaker and the whole business seemed needlessly tiresome.  As he stood in front of you awaiting judgment, with his overeager accusers prodding you from the wings and insisting on his execution, how could you possibly have known that your decision either way would have repercussions that would change the course of history?  I wonder…if you had known how monstrously important your moment with Jesus really was, would it have changed your decision? Would you have taken more time to think about it?  To make your choice?

After your exchange with him about whether or not he was a king or had made any claim to be a king—an issue which, it seems, was left somewhat unresolved—Jesus said something that was both intriguing and a bit enigmatic.  He said, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

That last part is a little tricky in translation—that’s one of the problems with reviewing things centuries after they happened.  Details can become blurred.  Languages don’t always translate precisely.  Words and phrases seldom bring their cultural context with them when they plunge into a new language.  Did Jesus say “everyone who belongs to the truth” or “everyone who is of the truth” or “out of the truth” or “from the truth”?  All these are reasonable and acceptable translations of that potent little Greek word ek.  The differences in meaning are subtle, but not unimportant.  The choices we make in how we choose to hear it carry weight.  Personally, I like belongs.  It reminds me that truth, even as a philosophical concept, is bigger than I am.  Truth is my master, I am truth’s servant.  This means, of course, that I must be very careful that it’s not my own subjective version of truth or my wishful thinking version of truth that I am serving.  I have to be careful that I haven’t bound myself in service to a propaganda version of truth.  I belong to truth.  It owns me.  So I listen to the voice of Jesus.

You asked a simple question in response to Jesus.  Well that’s not quite true.  It’s not a simple question at all.  It is, in point of fact, a question that has kept various philosophers, theologians, and even scientists awake at night for two millennia.   Three small words in our language, also in your language, and also the ancient Greek that handed the question down to us:

Quid est veritas?  What is truth?

Were you being cynical when you asked that, my dear Prefect?  Or did you ask it, as Frederick Buechner suggests, with a lump in your throat?  Is this a question that had kept you awake at night, also?  Or had you dismissed the whole idea of objective truth after so many years on the judgment seat hearing people give competing versions of “the truth”?  

Did it occur to you for even an instant, my dear Pontius Pilate, that the truth was standing right in front of you as you asked the question?  Did it occur to you that the truth was not an idea or philosophical concept, but rather a person?

The truth was standing right in front of you, Prefect.  I don’t say that out of piety.  I don’t say it to be in conformity with the holy writings that arose from his followers in the years after your time with him.  I don’t say it merely to resonate with his own words when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  I say it, dear Pontius Pilate, because it is true. Objectively true. The answer to your question, the truth, was standing right in front of you.

Here is the truth that you were not seeing, my dear Pontius, as Jesus stood before you in silence with his hands tied and his fate all but sealed:

Heaven was confronting empire.  

As you faced each other, it was more than Jesus of Nazareth fronting Pontius Pilate of Rome.  In you, Prefect, was all the relentless and violent might of the empire spilled down through its systems of hierarchy and bureaucracy.   In you was oppression and military organization used ruthlessly to maintain efficiency, protect investment, and continue the empire’s  domination.  All that might and power and agenda was condensed into your title, Prefect.  And in that moment with Jesus, all the authority of that title was condensed into your word, your yes or your no.  

Across from you was Jesus, unadorned humanity in the image and likeness of God.  Challenging your word of imperial authority, your yes or no, was the yes of life,  the yes of creation, the yes of generosity, the yes who spoke light into the shadowy hearts of all humanity.  Creation, life, the light of understanding, love, which is the presence of the divine, grace and her twin sister mercy, equity and her twin sister justice—these things have always been opposed to empire, and Jesus of Nazareth embodied all this as he stood facing you in silence.  Standing before you was one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.  

All the natural flow and goodness of earth and heaven was standing before the empire’s paranoid, overzealous, and slightly incompetent middle management, waiting for a decision.  

But so was everyday life.

The truth came before you, Pontius, in plain clothes.  Truth came to you as one of the invisible people you passed without seeing as you rode your chariot through the city.  Truth came before you already roughed up and mistreated by those with less authority but more fear, anger, and frustration.  Truth stood before you as one of the little people.

Truth came as a workman turned rabbi, a teacher who was trying to open the eyes and widen the embrace of his people—of all people—a teacher who was trying to give us a larger vision of how life could be with real justice and real fairness and real concern for persons.  He was trying to show us how life could be in a kin-dom of God where we love our neighbors as ourselves.  

The truth stood before you armed only with words and a vision, the most powerful tools humanity has ever known.  But words and vision have always found themselves contesting swords and spears because empire knows that words and vision are inevitably its undoing. 

Heaven confronted empire, Prefect, and heaven came armed with nothing but truth, words, and vision. 

“What is truth?” you asked.  Can you see now, my dear Marcus Pontius Pilatus, that truth is not an idea, nor merely empirically proven facts?  Can you see yet that truth is a person?  All of us stand in that truth one way or another.  And empire will always have trouble seeing that.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has never understood it.  

Truth was staring you in the face, Prefect.  

Know that truth, Pontius, and the truth will make you free.  

The Least of These

From Matthew 25:31-49: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”(NRSV) Note that Jesus does not say, “As you did to the deserving but unlucky.” Nor does he say “As you did it to the industrious,” or “to the independent” or “to the self-sufficient” or “to the frugal” or “to the responsible.” He says, “to the least.” The Greek word there is “elachiston.” It means smaller than small. Less than less. “Micro” is small. This is smaller.
Since this is the only place in the gospels where we get a preview of what’s on humanity’s final exam, I think we should take Jesus at his word, and this Word should frame not only our ministries, but also our lifestyles and our politics.

THANK YOU, MISS KOPP

Yesterday I wrote about a bad teacher. Today I write about a good one — Janice Kopp. Miss Kopp was my 6th-grade teacher. She was strict, scary, a …

THANK YOU, MISS KOPP

One of my seminary profs once said to me, “You live in a posture of gratitude.” It was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Kit, an absolutely terrific writer, knows what it means to live in a posture of gratitude. May we all learn to do so.

I Can Read it Myself. Sort of.

Thoughts Along the Way

Every God-breathed writing is also useful for teaching, for reproach, for correction and restoration, and for instruction in righteousness and justice so that the person of God may be completely equipped for every good work. – 2 Timothy 3:16, (my translation)

“I have my own Bible and I can read it myself,” said the man, a little heatedly. “I don’t need anybody to tell me what it says.” Much as I wanted to respond, I knew it wasn’t the right moment. That discussion would have to wait for a calmer time. Besides, I knew exactly how he felt. I remember feeling that way, too.

When I first went to seminary I thought I was pretty darn well prepared, at least in the important qualification of Knowing My Bible. In 1980 I had worked as a line producer on the team that recorded and produced Zondervan’s NIV translation of The Bible…

View original post 1,011 more words

Apocalypse

Mark 13:1-8

“When the end of the world comes,” said Mark Twain, “I want to be in Kentucky.  They’re twenty years behind everything.”

The word apocalypse comes directly from Greek and only drops one small syllable on its way into English.  Apokalypsis to Apocalypse.  The literal meaning is “to uncover” or “to unveil.”  It originally meant a disclosure, a revelation.  

The word can also describe a particular kind of literature.  That’s the first meaning in Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

one of the Jewish and Christian writings of 200 b.c. to a.d. 150 marked by pseudonymity, symbolic imagery, and the expectation of an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.

Webster also gives what it calls the “Essential Meaning”:

a great disaster a sudden and very bad event that causes much fear, loss, or destruction.

In more common usage, apocalypse is often used as shorthand for “the end of the world.”

From disclosure to disaster.  That’s quite a shift in meaning.  

Why are people so fascinated with the idea of The Apocalypse, the End of the World?  What is it about the human psyche that wants to immerse itself in “end of the world” thinking?  And why has our interest in this topic been growing? 

I took a look at Wikipedia’s list of Apocalyptic films.  It paints an interesting picture.  Before 1950, there were only 4 apocalypse movies.  The first one was a Danish film made in 1916 called, prosaically enough, The End of the World.  And then we went fifteen years before anyone made another apocalyptic movie.  That one was a French film made in 1931, also titled The End of the World.  American filmmakers got into the Apocalypse business in 1933 with Deluge from RKO Pictures, and then the Brits took a turn in 1936 with a United Artists picture called Things to Come, written by H.G. Wells.  So in the whole first half of the 20th century, only 4 apocalyptic movies are listed.  Four.  

And then they stopped.  That’s probably because the world was at war in the 1940s.  People were living through an apocalypse, and they wanted their movies to tell them there was a brighter day coming, a time of rebuilding.  

Apocalyptic films reappeared in the 1950s, but they were still sporadic enough that it would be stretching things at that point to call them a genre.  From 1950 to 1959 there are eleven apocalypse movies on Wikipedia’s list, but things would pick up significantly in the 1960s.  

From 1960 to 1969, twenty-six apocalypse movies are listed, including the classics Dr. Strangelove and Planet of the Apes. The 1970s gave us 39 apocalypse or post-apocalypse movies.  From 1980-1989, producers cranked out 47 apocalypse movies.  In the 1990s the stream of apocalyptic films slowed but not by much.  That decade gave us 41 apocalypse movies, but the Left Behind series of books hit the market in 1995, smack in the middle of that decade, so maybe people were reading about apocalypse instead of going to see it on the screen.  

After slowing just a bit in the ‘90s, the genre exploded in the 2000s.  From 2000 through 2009, Wikipedia lists 69 movies with apocalyptic themes showing up on our screens and probably in our collective psyche, because from 2010 through 2019, that number blew up again.  In that decade Wikipedia lists 109 movies with apocalyptic themes.  It’s too early to tell how “apocalyptic” this decade will be.  The pandemic put a serious crimp in film production of all genres, but even with a Covid-imposed lockdown, the first two years of this decade have put 15 apocalypse movies on our screens.

So back to the original question: why are people so fascinated by apocalypse?  Why is there such a big market for dystopia and humanity’s grand finale? 

I don’t know what the social psychologists would say about that, but I do know what Biblical scholars and theologians say.  They tell us that apocalyptic literature appears—and movies are a form of that—when a people is oppressed, or under great stress, or experiencing persecution.  The Book of Ezekiel, with its strange visions and imagery, appears during the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah to give hope and courage to captive and enslaved people who had seen their nation not just defeated but destroyed.  The Book of Daniel was written to give hope and courage to the Jewish rebels fighting against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the cruel Greek Seleucid ruler who desecrated Yahweh’s temple by setting up an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it.  John’s Apocalypse, which we call the Book of Revelation, was written to give hope and courage to followers of Jesus in Asia Minor who were being oppressed and persecuted by Rome. 

Hope and courage for people in dire straits.  That’s what all the ancient apocalypses are really all about when you wade through all the fascinating imagery.  They use imagery as a kind of code because the people writing them and reading them are living in dangerous circumstances.  If the empire is breathing down your neck, it’s not safe to say “Rome is a gluttonous, greedy, selfish pig of a nation that bullies other nations into handing over the best of everything while the rest of us are sucked dry.”  So instead you write about a harlot who sits on seven hills.  You can’t say that the emperor is a monster, so you write about a monster, a dragon with seven heads.

The writers of the apocalyptic works in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who guided them, never intended to be giving a coded timeline of the end of all things.  That’s not why they were written.  They were written to give a simple clear message:  “Hang in there.  Yes, these are scary times.  But God is on your side. Nasty empires and oppressive regimes don’t last forever.  They either exhaust themselves, or somebody conquers them (see Darius the Mede bringing new management to Babylon), or enough people finally get tired of their rubbish and rise up to throw them out on their ear (see Antiochus Epiphanes versus the Maccabees), or they overindulge themselves to death and collapse from internal squabbling and rot (see Rome).  Once more for emphasis: Hold on to hope.  Have courage. God is on your side.  And God wins in the end.”

That is the uniform, universal message of pretty much all apocalyptic literature.

With one apocalyptic exception:  the “little apocalypse” in chapter 13 of the Gospel of Mark. 

Mark was written during the Jewish uprising against Rome from 66-70 CE.  There was tremendous pressure on the followers of Jesus in Palestine to join with the Jewish forces in the fight against Rome.  They were told it was their patriotic duty to save Israel.  Special emphasis was put on protecting the temple in this appeal to patriotism.

The temple was in particular danger for several reasons.  It was the natural rallying point in the heart of Jerusalem, their ancient capitol.  That would make it a target for the Romans.  It was also the largest temple to any god in the Roman world, something of a point of pride for the Jewish people.  It was an important tourist attraction, drawing both pilgrims and tourists.  It was the heartbeat of Jerusalem’s economy.  It was also one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful building complex in the ancient world.  Most importantly, though, it was central to every Jew’s sense of identity.  The temple was Israel.  Israel was the temple.  To destroy the temple would be to destroy the nation.  That, in turn, would put every Jewish person’s sense of identity adrift.  Their spirit and resistance would be broken.  For all these reasons, protecting the temple was the rebellion’s top priority.

In Mark 13, when the disciples are gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the temple, Jesus just flatly tells them, “It’s all coming down.  Not one stone will be left on another.”  A bit later as they gather on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sits down to teach.  The disciples, having just heard a tantalizing tidbit of apocalypse want details.  “When is it going to happen?  What will the signs be that it’s about to happen?”  

Remember, this gospel, unlike Matthew, Luke, and John is being written while the temple is still standing, but in great jeopardy.  The questions the disciples are asking in the text are the questions that Mark’s faith community, his companion followers of Jesus, are asking.   They are desperate for a timetable.  As Mark writes his account, the Roman legions have vacated Palestine temporarily to go fight one of their frequent civil wars, but everyone knows they’ll be back. And with a vengeance. But when?

They want a timetable.  They want signs to look for.  But Jesus isn’t going to give them one.  “Stay on the path,” he says.  “Don’t let anyone lead you astray.  Others are going to come claiming they’re the Messiah.  Don’t fall for it.  If people try to tell you that various wars or natural disasters or famines are signs of the end and it’s time to get in the fight, don’t fall for it.  All these things are going on always and everywhere.  They are not signs of the end.  They are birth pangs.  Something new is being born.”

When they continue to pester him to be specific about the time of the temple’s destruction, Jesus finally says, “No one knows.  Even I don’t know. Only the Father knows.”  

This “little apocalypse” from Jesus in Mark is radically different from other apocalyptic writings in one major point.  Other apocalyptic writings—those included in the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, extra-biblical books like 1 Enoch and 4 Ezra, and the apocalyptic pamphlets that circulated throughout Palestine during the rebellion—all focused on the basic universal apocalyptic message: hang tough, fight the good fight, God is with you, hope and courage.  But this homily from Jesus is almost the opposite.  Ched Myers and other scholars suggest that he is telling his followers to abandon the temple.  He is telling his followers not to join in the resistance.  He urges them not to be led astray from their path of nonviolent resistance by charismatic leaders with messianic claims, swords and spears.

Jesus calls us to a different pathway of apocalypse.  This is not the pathway of Judas Maccabeus picking up his sword to fight the Greeks.  This is not the pathway of Simon bar Giora, claiming to be the new King David as he leads guerilla bands in surprise attacks.  This is not Mad Max with a sawed-off shotgun.  

Jesus is telling them that the rebellion is not the kingdom of God.

This is the pathway of Jesus, the Way of nonviolence.  The way of critiquing the bad by doing the better.  The rebellion is not the kingdom. But the kingdom is a rebellion…done a different Way.

In the Gospel of Mark, the kingdom of God, as it is embodied by Jesus, is revealed to us as a nonviolent rebellion against business as usual, economics as usual, politics as usual, government as usual, and religion as usual.  It is also very much a rebellion against rebellion as usual.  The entire mission of Jesus in the gospels is, in its way, an apocalypse.  A revealing.  It pulls back the veil to show us the serious flaws in our ways of doing things.  It critiques the bad by giving us a vision of the better.  Yes, the Way of Jesus does describe the end of the world.  It ends when it is gradually, nonviolently reimagined heart by heart, mind by mind, one person at a time until the reign of God has come on earth as it is in heaven.  

How’s that for an apocalypse?

The Cloud of Witnesses

My very earliest memory is full of lightning, thunder, and freezing rain.  And my mother crying.  

I was not quite 4 years old.  It was nap time at the preschool, and we were all supposed to be stretched out on our rugs relaxing and thinking sleepy thoughts, but most of us were curled up in a fetal position because the lightning kept flashing and the thunder kept thundering and the little beads of freezing rain pelting the windows sounded like something skittering and malicious trying to break in.  And suddenly, there was my mom, appearing out of nowhere, bending over the teacher’s desk and whispering something to her while my teacher made an “Oh no!” face.  The next thing I knew, I was in the back seat of the car.  Mom sat in the driver’s seat.  But she didn’t start the car.  We just sat there.  Then my mom put her face in her hands and wept.  

Clearly something was very wrong.  Something awful had happened.  And since I was not quite four years old, I assumed that whatever it was, it was my fault.  So I started apologizing, just saying “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry” over and over again.  And, of course, I started crying, too, because I was confused and scared and not quite four years old, and my mother was crying, and the thunder kept thundering and the lightning kept flashing, and the wind was howling as it threw freezing rain against the windshield.  But mostly I cried because I was absolutely positive that I had done something very, very bad that made my mother cry, though I couldn’t have told you for the life of me what that might be.

Finally, Mom composed herself and reassured me that I had not done anything wrong.  She told me that my grandpa had died.  Her father, the person who, at that point in my life, I loved more than anyone else in the world, except maybe her,  had died.  I had sat in his lap in the farmhouse kitchen just one week before, sneaking sips of cream and sugar coffee from his saucer.  And now he was dead.  

Everything about the following days after that moment is blur in my memory.  Except for this: I have a very clear memory of looking at my grandpa laid out in his casket at his funeral.  I must have looked at him for some time, because when I close my eyes, I can still see him.  As I looked at him, I realized that he was both there and not there—that the body lying in the casket was my beloved grandfather, but that the something that made him the person I knew and loved was not in that casket.  And yet, I felt him so close to me.  As a matter of fact, I have felt him close to me many, many times since then.  

I learned some very important things about death at the tender age of not quite four.  

The first thing I learned is that death hurts.  It may or may not hurt the person who dies.  That depends a lot on how they die.  In fact, if pain is involved, death is a blessed release from that pain.  Still, death hurts.  It hurts those who are left behind, those of us who love the one who has died.  Death rips a piece out of the fabric of our lives, and there’s no patching it.  It hurts to know that the loved one who has died won’t be here with us any more—at least not in the tangible, put-your-arms-around-them-and-hug-them way they were here before.  It hurts to know you won’t be able to sing with them or cook with them or walk with them or joke with them or have lunch with them or any of the million little things we do with each other.  At least not in the way you did those things before.

Death hurts.  So we weep.  My mother wept.  Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died.  He felt the pain survivors feel in the face of death.  In fact, the original language of the story hints there was anger in his weeping—anger at the pain and bewilderment that death always brings with it.  Death hurts.

I also learned when I was not quite four that death comes to everyone.  No exception.  As my mom talked to me about my grandfather’s death, she made that pretty clear.  She grew up on a farm, so she didn’t pull any punches.  I am going to die, she said.  Someday.  Your dad is going to die.  Someday.  You are going to die.  Someday.  It happens to everyone.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.  It’s a part of life.

Death is a part of life.  Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And if you don’t find a way to make peace with that idea—make peace with the idea of your own death—you will find all kinds of ways to make yourself crazy trying to deny death.  Our whole Western culture is built around exactly that kind of craziness.  Ernest Becker described our collective insanity from denying death and its destructive consequences so well that he won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, The Denial of Death.   Money, seeking fame, gluttony, narcissism, surrounding ourselves with stuff, addiction—all these things and more can be ways to hide from the deep truth of our mortality.  

We just don’t want to think about it.  We use euphemisms so we don’t have to say the words.  He passed. Passed away.  Passed on.  She’s gone ahead.  He kicked the bucket.  Bought the farm.  Gave up the ghost.   Went to be with the Lord.  Went to heaven.  Met his maker.  Was called home.  Has gone on to a better place.  Even the military will say that there were X number of casualties instead of saying that X number of people died or were killed.  They died.  They are dead.

Death.  It’s a spooky word.  There is a finality about it.  I think sometimes we’re afraid to say it because we think might summon it.  But guess what?  We’re not that powerful.  We might have mojo, but we don’t have that kind of mojo.  And besides, death coming eventually anyway.  For each and every one of us.

I’ve thought a lot about death since I was not quite four years old, especially during the last twenty-five years.  As a pastor, I’ve been in the room with Death a lot more often than the average person.  But that’s not why I’ve spent so much time thinking about it.  I’ve thought a lot about death because I’m in the Life business, specifically the Life in Christ business.  And one of the things that’s essential for Christians to remember is that we were baptized into death.  Saint Paul said so in Romans:  “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Newness of life.  That’s the thing you get if you make peace with death.  You don’t need to be afraid of death anymore.  You understand that life and death are part of the same thing, the same continuum.  So you can be free from all the crazy-making things that shackle you if you’re trying to deny your mortality.  You can be free to live life in all its fullness. 

There are some fairy-folk in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels called the Nac Mac Feegle.  They’re six inches tall, blue, mischievous, wear kilts, and speak with a Scottish accent.  They are absolutely fearless and embrace life with joyful ferocity.  The thing that makes them fearless and so fiercely, joyfully alive is their one central belief:  they believe they have already died and that the world they now live in is heaven.  There’s no need to be afraid of death.  It’s already happened.  And if they do happen to die, they believe that they are just going to another part of heaven they haven’t been to yet.  I can’t help but think that as Christians, we’re supposed to believe something like that.  We’ve already died.  In baptism we have died with Christ so we can walk fearlessly, freely, and even with a fierce joy into newness of life.

Life and death are part of the same continuum.  And it is a continuum that continues.  Life. Death. Resurrection.  As Saint Paul said, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  It is Christ’s life in us that carries us through death.  It is Christ’s life in us and our life in Christ that guarantees our resurrection. Someday.  In God’s own good time.  

In the meantime, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.    In so many, many ways our loved ones who have died still walk with us and stand beside us.  Their lives have shaped our lives.  We feel their presence.  They gather with us at the table in the Communion of Saints and share the sacrament that connects us through all the generations in an unbroken line all the way to the apostles and to Jesus himself.  

At his last supper, Jesus told us to remember him.  He didn’t mean that we should simply think about him with fondness and nostalgia.  He meant it in the Jewish way of remembering.  He meant for us to bring him forward out of the past and into the present to be fully with us so we can be fully with him.

This is a day when we remember the saints—those people of faith who have died in Christ and will rise again in God’s own good time.  But they arise with us now in a different way when we remember them.  

We remember them.  Re-member.  To receive again as a member.  To reassemble the whole from parts that were separated.  We speak their names. We remember them.  We call them out of our memories and acknowledge their place in the assembled body of Christ.  We remind ourselves that they have died, but they still stand with us in the body of Christ.

We believe that on this day and every day the saints live on in the love of God and life of Christ.  This is not a denial of death.  We do not deny death.  We defy it.  We defy it as we fiercely and joyfully embrace life eternal.

Leaving Home/Going Home

            How lovely is your dwelling place,

                        O LORD of hosts!

            My soul longs, indeed it faints

                        for the courts of the LORD;

            my heart and my flesh sing for joy

                        to the living God. 

               Even the sparrow finds a home,

                        and the swallow a nest for herself,

                        where she may lay her young. —Psalm 84:1-3

I started to drive away but something moved me to pull over to the curb and stop.   I sat there in my car looking across the street at the house we had called home for the last seven years.  It didn’t feel right to just drive away.  After all, we had a relationship with this place, and you don’t just drive away from a relationship without a good goodbye. After a long look at the house, the words finally came.  “Thank you, house,” I said. “You kept us warm and dry in the winter and cool in the summer.  We had a few trials but much more joy within your walls and you held us together through all of it. You gave us a place to be family.  You gave us a place to be home.  I know you will do the same for your new owners.  Hold them and protect them.  I hope your walls will remember our love and laughter.  We will remember you with much fondness.”  I took a long last look at the pale yellow house on the corner lot then drove away for the last time. 

We are moving to live closer to our daughter and son-in-law and grandsons.  The new house has a pool which is a huge attraction for our water-loving grandsons.  We haven’t even moved our furniture in yet and they’ve already taken a swim there.  

It’s exciting to move into a different house.  It’s fun to do all the things that make it ours—choosing paint colors, taking out old carpet and putting in new flooring, planning where the furniture will go.  But there is also a kind of wistful sadness in leaving the old house behind.  It was more than just a house.  It was our home.

As I write this on All Saints Day, I am mindful of all the saints I’ve been at home with and all the places I’ve called home over the years.  All Saints Day is for me a kind of marker in the calendar, signaling a time of introspection, ingathering and family.  Thanksgiving lies just ahead.  Then Christmas.  These are times to be shared with family, whether the accidental family of your gene pool or your church family or the intentional family of like-minded friends that you’ve gathered around yourself.  These are times to remember and to make new memories.

This is also a time—and this day in particular—to be mindful of the “great cloud of witnesses,” those beloved people who have gone before us and whose presence we still carry in our hearts.  This is a day and a season to remember the faces that always warmed our hearts and reminded us that we are not alone in this world or the next.  This is a day, even, to remember the houses that held us, the places where we were at home.  This is also a day and a season to remember that someday we will move on.

Life is movement.   Some of us move many times.  Some put down roots in a place and stay there most of their lives.  But eventually everyone moves on to the great mystery, the great What Comes Next.  Eventually every one of us will move to the House with many dwelling places where a place for us has been prepared. 

In my work I have been privileged and blessed to be with many as they made that final move.  Some were mightily reluctant to go and approached it with anger or fear.  Most though, had made peace with the idea and were ready for the move.  Some even welcomed it joyfully.  When you know you’re going to move, it’s always best to make peace with the idea.  It’s even better when you can anticipate your new residence with joy.

I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world below
There’s no sickness, no toil or danger
In that bright land to which I go

I’m going there to see my father
And all my loved ones, who’ve gone on
I’m just going over Jordan
I’m just going over home