What Took Them So Long, Anyway?

For most of us, their figurines are probably already back in the garage or attic, in holiday hibernation with all of the other seasonal decorations for the next eleven months. Likewise, though the liturgical purists among us may fuss about it, in most churches we probably won’t be singing about those three kings and the star of wonder this week, for we’ve pretty much moved on from Christmas, even though the calendar (and that insipid song) tell us that Epiphany doesn’t actually arrive until the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6 each year.

But all of that simply begs the question, I think, of what took those wise men so long to get to Bethlehem in the first place.  For by the time they showed up at the scene, Mary and Joseph had not only moved out of the stable and into the house (Matthew 2.11), but it’s clear that they had been living there for some time or so since the birth of their son Jesus, perhaps as long as a year or more.

The prescribed period in Leviticus 12 for Mary’s ritual purification following childbirth, for instance, was at least forty days, after which the new parents then presented Jesus to be dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem, some six miles from Bethlehem but eighty from Nazareth.  And the fact that they did so by offering only a few birds suggests that they did not yet have the necessary funds which those gifts from the Wise Men would have provided to even purchase the prescribed “lamb of the first year” in the dedication of the Lamb of God Himself.

We can certainly sympathize too with the travel delays that those Persian visitors might have incurred, for holiday trips can be a bear for everyone, and if you throw a crazy man like Herod into the mix, it can get even worse.  Still, they could have started sooner, we may think, and as has often been observed, if there had been some wise women among them, they might not have gotten lost along the way in the first place.

In the end, however, the only real answer for the delay is that God was not just in the instance of the Incarnation, but He was in the timing of the whole matter as well.  For before they returned to Nazareth, like those ancient Israelites whose pattern Jesus came to model and perfect, the Holy Family escaped to Egypt where they could be safe until Herod’s death.

To be sure, neither Joseph nor Mary had probably planned on such an extended time away when they left Nazareth before Jesus was born.  Nor did the wise men figure it would take them as long as it did, or require them to figure out an alternate way to go back unnoticed by Herod in Jerusalem.  But God not only knew precisely the where and why of it all, He also knew the when.

And it strikes me that He still does in our lives as well.  For when detours and delays may unexpectedly occur, it may simply be a sign that God is not just in our years but in the days and even moments we experience, as well, directing the traffic of our lives as He knows best.   If you’re looking for a miracle in your life today, thus, you may want to pay a little closer attention to God’s perfect timing, for that’s often where you will find it.  And in the end, those who are wise indeed seek Him still.

Even if it does take a little longer than they planned.

 

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Unto Us

(For many years it has been my custom to write a poem each Christmas, recognizing that the awesome wonder of the Incarnation is as much an emotion to be absorbed as it is a truth to be embraced.  As published in our weekly worship guide for December 23, here is this year’s version.)

Amidst the cries of clan and creeds,

of visions lost within the weeds,

and warring words and dueling deeds,

     The Prince of Peace was born.

While all the world was trapped in night,

And wrong seemed stronger than the right,

There came a bright and heavenly light,

     That blessed Christmas morn.

To shepherds as they watched their sheep,

Their nightly vigil thus to keep,

A voice proclaimed both loud and deep:

     “Go worship Him adorned.”

The found Him in a manger bare,

For better quarters none could spare,

Still, with His mother’s loving care,

     The swaddling cloths were worn.

Surrounded by both man and beast,

And soon those wise men from the east,

A witness both to great and least,

     Just as it was foresworn.

And though the years have now gone by,

And some still question what and why,

This truth will never fade or die:

     That child to us was born.

 

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Pie Day

It’s been a holiday staple of our family’s life for over twenty years now.  For just prior to Thanksgiving, we will make the trek up to the northside of Houston for what we call simply “Pie Day.”  Others have designated March 14 with that name, I know, in a clever pun on the numerical value of the mathematical symbol known as Pi.  But for us, Pie Day is pretty literal, involving a trip to the Flying Saucer Pie Company on Crosstimbers near Shepherd.

We go early, for the line to that small unassuming bakery, one of Houston’s oldest family owned businesses, starts at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  Similarly, they don’t take any orders that week, all sales are first come, first serve, and when they’re out of popular pies—such as Pumpkin Cream—they’re usually done for the day.  If you want one of the more than 35,000 pies that they sell during those days, thus, you need to come prepared for the wait and the weather.

But then that’s all just part of the experience.  For in the line outside that bakery, you will find a cross-section of society indeed–well-heeled patrons from River Oaks, neighbors from the modest homes nearby, police officers and fire fighters, ex patriot pie-lovers from out of town, and folks speaking at least a dozen languages, all lined up side by side.  And as the wait progresses, so too do the conversations and even instant relationships as strangers become friends, eagerly describing why one flavor is their favorite, or sharing just how many pies they have come to fetch for others as well as themselves.  (Our record is 44 at once.)

Of course, in the end, it’s just pie, albeit the most delicious we’ve ever had.  The cream pies, in fact, are what you would hope someone might throw in your face sometime.  But what Pie Day is really about is simply being a part of something greater than yourself—a community where all belong, no one is in a hurry (since it wouldn’t matter anyway), and there are no special privileges or advantages for a few. For just like at the foot of the cross, everyone is equal at Flying Saucer Pies.

Just keep the line moving and be ready when you get inside the building and get to the counter.  For there are folks behind you who have come to do the exact same thing.  Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without it.

 

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A Prayer on Election Day

His voice was silenced half a century ago at a far too young age, but his words still resonate for many today.  For Peter Marshall, the Scottish immigrant who rose to become the pastor of one of Washington’s largest churches and the Chaplain of the United States Senate, had a way of speaking that communicated both his convictions and his compassion.  It’s clear that Dr. Marshall was on intimate terms with God, which is perhaps why his Senate prayers became widely requested.

On this day, his “Prayer Before a National Election” is worth reading and remembering:

“Lord Jesus, we ask Thee to guide the people of this nation as they exercise their dearly bought privilege of franchise.  May it neither be ignored unthinkingly nor undertaken lightly.  As citizens all over this land go to the ballot boxes, give to them a high sense of privilege and joyous responsibility.  Help those who are about to be elected to public office to come to understand the real source of their mandate—a mandate given by no party machine, received at no polling booth, but given by God; a mandate to govern wisely and well; a mandate to represent God and truth at the heart of the nation; a mandate to do good in the name of Him under whom this Republic was established.  We ask Thee to lead America in the paths where Thou wouldst have her walk, to do the tasks which Thou has hast laid before her.  So may we together seek happiness for all our citizens in the name of Him who created us all equal in His sight, and therefore brothers.  Amen.”

And sisters, too, we might add.

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Oslo and the One Church Plan

It was 25 years ago last week that they signed the agreement.  And while no one expected the two sides to immediately settle all of their disputes, there was at least a hopeful spirit that the prospects for a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable problem might just be at hand.

To give some time to settle into it, however, imbedded in each element of the fabled Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine was the idea of “constructive ambiguity.” But ironically enough–at least as suggested by one former Israeli Knesset member, Einat Wilf, in The Atlantic–the very feature designed to ensure the success of the plan was the same one that eventually sank it.  For instead of building trust, that intentional ambiguity allowed each side to simply persist in the very behaviors which destroyed trust on the other side.

Israel, for instance, not only kept building settlements in the West Bank, but increased the population of those settlements almost four-fold.  And Palestinian leaders continued to push a “Right of Return” demanding Jews vacate everything east of the pre-1967 borders, while still often refusing to concede the right of Israel to even exist. A quarter century later, thus, the problem has now only worsened as that “constructive ambiguity” has become destructive instead.

And it strikes me that there may just be a lesson for The United Methodist Church in all of this, as well. For in trying to resolve our seemingly intractable sexuality questions, the One Church Plan would appear to employ the same strategy of creating “constructive ambiguity” over what we as a denomination actually teach and believe. It allows regions of the church to determine moral qualifications for ministry, for example, as well as individuals to define the church’s understanding of marriage.  In the end, however, that makes as much sense as G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.”  Or in one state or country, but not in another one.

What’s more, the One Church Plan is plainly meant to be a transitional one.  For even those who find our current position morally wrong have acknowledged that though it does not go far enough, the OCP is a necessary “first step” towards the eventual goal of “full inclusion.”  To put it as one bishop has, it doesn’t change everything for everyone everywhere…yet… but it does set our whole denomination on a trajectory that is different than the one we have long followed.  Only as John Richard Neuhas has warned, “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed,” or prohibited.

The words of that Knesset member Einat Wilf may therefore be worth noting by United Methodists in the days ahead.  For as he has written, “If we have learnt anything over the past twenty-five years, it is that being ambiguous… does no one any favors…the sooner both sides hear and internalize these simple, cold, hard truths, the sooner we will be able to speak of hope again.”

So could it be that therein lies the hope for the people called Methodists—in all of our varied expressions–as well?  To speak the truth…in love…no matter where it leads us?

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Seventeen Years Ago

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seventeen years since that day, for I suspect that everyone over the age of 25 can well remember where we were when the first reports began to crackle over the radio.  I had just dropped my wife off to teach for the day, in fact, and was headed back to my office when I heard the news of a terrible plane accident involving the World Trade Center in New York.

It sounded awful, to be sure, but when I got home and turned on the television it was even worse.  For it wasn’t an accident at all, but a deliberate attack, confirmed when a second plane crashed into the second of those twin towers.  Meanwhile, at her school near NASA, Julie noticed that Air Force fighter jets had been scrambled and were buzzing loudly overhead.  And as the hours wore on, the full enormity began to flow over all of us as well.  For September 11, 2001, was not just a day to remember, but a day that changed America forever.

Flying to Boston this past week, for instance, I was reminded of how much air travel morphed after that fateful day.  For even with TSA Pre-Check—and there was no TSA before 9/11—it’s still much tighter. So no matter where you are going—to a conference, on a vacation, to see your grandchildren, or to meet old friends—no matter how hopeful or excited you may—there’s still that slight tingle of anxiety when you go through the line, isn’t there, still that reminder that our security in this world is never quite completely guaranteed.  For indeed, we never really know when we too may be called to eternity, just as the people who got on those planes seventeen years ago this morning had no idea that it would be the last day of their lives on this earth either.

Likewise, that moment changed how we view good and evil, I think.  For on 9/11 whatever innocence about humankind that we might still have had, whatever fancied ideas about the world that we might have yet indulged, whatever comfort we might have felt in our denial of the power of bad things to affect us, we were inextricably reminded that there is something very wrong in the world. Indeed, evil once more reared its ugly head and stared us down, face to face.  For what 9/11 revealed is that evil not only exists–the “mystery of iniquity” as St. Paul called it in 1 Thessalonians 2.7—but that we live in conflict with spiritual forces of wickedness that are pledged to destroy us.

But what 9/11 also taught us was that even in the presence of pain and poignancy, of turmoil and tragedy, God is with us as well.  For in the words of 1 Corinthians 15, we have not believed in vain, our faith is not futile, and it is not only for this life that we have hope in Christ at all. Such is not to minimize the fact that almost 3000 people died in the 9/11 attacks, of course, and countless more had their lives forever altered by the loss of their loved ones.  But the hope we have is that God knew every one of them by name—just as He knows us– and eternal life did not end that day for any of them.  For centuries ago, the tragedy of the cross was followed by the triumph of the empty tomb. And the good news is, it still is.

On this day of remembrance, take a moment to reflect back on where you were that morning that changed America.  But just as importantly, ask yourself as well just where you are today when it comes to God. For if He isn’t your real security in life, the truth is, you haven’t got any at all.

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From Inside the Ark–Revisited

(The following post originally appeared on this blog on August 29, 2017, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey which devastated the Houston area.  On the one-year anniversary of that event, in which Christ Church served as a shelter for more than one hundred of our friends and neighbors, it is being shared as a reminder of the faithfulness of God and the true calling of the church, no matter what kind of storm it may be facing.)

As morning dawns on Day Two the sanctuary has never been more holy. For scattered throughout its pews, as in classrooms and offices around the building, Christ Church truly is a refuge this day offering both safety and community to a host of evacuees from area floods who have found their way to our building.

That has not been easy in and of itself. For not only is the street on which we are located now flooded in both directions, our parking lot is also a running stream and our basement level has standing water as well, with the torrent held back only by a pair of glass doors and some sandbags.  Most of those who made it here came in the back of dump trucks as the city of Sugar Land began to pluck folks out of homes which are now in danger of flooding, or have already begun to do so.  A school bus likewise showed up with a group last night and as they stumbled in, the dazed look on their faces said it all.

Some had only a few moments notice, for instance, before being told they had to get out of their houses, and so the only possessions they brought were in a garbage sack or pillow case. Others walked here, slogging through the waters, and were quickly given youth or mission trip T-shirts to change into.  Two are in wheelchairs and there are at least a couple of babies as well.  And a number brought their family pets which slept with them in the classrooms we tried to give to families.

Reflective of our broader community–the most diverse county in the world, so we are told– the group is also incredibly varied, speaking several languages and representing numerous cultures and religious backgrounds. Still, we have become a little oecumenical ecclesia and most have tried to find some way to help, whether it is moving furniture, cooking pasta in our kitchen, or sharing what they do have with those around them.

There are some material blessings to give thanks for indeed. Though the power went off for a while yesterday afternoon it has been back on since and so lights, air conditioning and, of course, cell phone chargers have all been able to work.  We’ve kept our monitors on, tuned to a local TV station, allowing our guests to feel connected to what is happening outside of our instant island.  The staff and church volunteers who are here with us have absolutely been phenomenal.  And just now, we’ve learned that the staff at Berryhills, a local eatery, stayed up making 300 tamales which they somehow managed to get to us in the dark of night.  In turn, the city has promised to get us more food and bedding supplies, for it appears that more of our neighbors are on the way and that we are going to be here for some time to come.

In short, God has given us a lovely laboratory to live out the theme verse of our congregation in very tangible ways: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have sent you… for in its peace you shall find your own.”  (Jeremiah 29.7)

So far our water-logged community is finding how to make it work. And under the high wooden rafters of our sanctuary… even with a few leaks… we have discovered again why the church really is the Ark of Salvation.

 

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