Not that Kind of Baptist

Advent Benediction

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The Advent Lectionary texts might strike you as a bit odd, at first glance. The first Sunday of Advent's Gospel reading from Mark, the so-called Little Apocalypse, speaks of the sun being "darkened, and the moon" failing to give its light. Stars will fall, and then the Son of Man will come in the clouds. This is a far cry from the little Playmobil nativity scene our kids had for a few years.

For a long time--too long--I thought Advent was just about Christmas and the coming of the Christ child. The texts and the theological focus of the four Sundays preceding Christmas actually focus on the coming of Christ in various ways. Philip H. Pfatteicher writes in Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year that "Since at least the time of Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153),Christians have spoken of the three comings of Christ: in the flesh in Bethlehem, in our hearts daily, and in glory at the end of time." This expansive view of Christ's coming explains the seemingly strange focus on John the Baptist during Advent II and III. We must expand our vision from the babe in swaddling clothes to the wild eyed John who was "clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and [who] ate locusts and wild honey." (Mark 1:6) Both images foretell a divine coming in different ways; both require our response.

Advent is a clarion call to God's people to rise from their slumber. "Beware, keep alert" Mark tells us at the end of the Little Apocalypse. Our culture and our technology have a way of lulling us into spiritual sleep. We lose the sharp edge of daily reflection, prayer, and contemplation. We lose the passion and desire for social justice. We retreat into cynicism.

The Christ child was born some 2,000 years ago, which we liturgically re-enact every year during Advent in various ways: Christmas kids' pageants, Christmas carols, readings from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. The dramatic renewal of salvation memory lifts our spirits every year. But we should not lose the triple focus of Advent which Bernard of Clairvaux helps us see. Christ the infant has already come, and Christ will come again in glory. But Bernard's vision of Christ's coming which happens in the present is one to which our lethargy encourages us to ignore. That present tense arrival is named by Christ's arrival "in our hearts daily." In a sermon from the 11th century, Bernard writes of this poetic "second coming" in this way:

Keep God’s word in this way. Let it enter into your very being, let it take possession of your desires and your whole way of life. Feed on goodness, and your soul will delight in its richness. Remember to eat your bread, or your heart will wither away. Fill your soul with richness and strength. (Click here for the source)

Let that be our Advent benediction.

The Mercy Rule

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          One time, Jesus was having dinner with tax collectors and sinners, and some Pharisees raised a commotion with Jesus’ disciples.  They asked, “Why is he eating with those guys?”  That’s my own rough translation.  Jesus heard about it soon enough and remarked “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13).

            I think he’s speaking to us, don’t you?  Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.  We can do sacrifice just fine, but mercy?  Forget about it.  The righteous are always in favor of the system of sacrifice because that can be mastered, domesticated, and controlled.  The righteous can codify their rituals, prescribe orthodox forms and techniques, and control who approaches the altar and under what conditions.  But mercy…oh mercy, that’s hard to do.  And mercy, Jesus says, that’s for sinners. 

            I remember watching a high school Texas football game where the score was 50-0 by the second quarter.  The team called it quits at half time.  Why?  The school division had something called the mercy rule.  That’s where the game automatically ends when one team reaches a certain score threshold.  This may explain why Georgia only beat Tennessee by 41 points this year.

          The book of James tells us that “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  That’s good news, because if judgment carries the day, we’re all in a pile of trouble.  But the logic of our culture is that of no mercy. It’s like that scene in Gladiator when the emperor lowers his thumb, signaling the violent destruction of the contestant.  Our national culture is kind of like one big Gladiator game, and we tune in to see who is being devoured by the lions today.  In our politics and social media, shame and humiliation are the order of the day, not mercy. 

            So this explains the Pharisees’ horror at seeing a rabbi eat with sinners.  It had never occurred to them to show mercy to sinners.  Their paradigm admitted of only one rule: exclusion of the impure.  Eating with sinners violated their system of sacrificial purity.  The righteous cannot be contaminated by sinners.  There’s not much room for mercy when you spend most of your time deciding who is in and who is out.  But Jesus just had to act like…well…Jesus.  And Jesus came to call sinners.  And sinners apparently need mercy.  I know I do.  Do you? 

Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: mercy
in Prayer

Where do Prayers Go?

A friend gave me a book recently: Mary Oliver’s volume of poetry A Thousand Mornings.  I love Mary Oliver’s poetry.  I find her honesty and vulnerability so beautiful.  She writes in a poem called “I Happened to Be Standing” some honest words about prayer.   “I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do.”  She must have been reading my mind. Does that sound true to you?  When we pray, we are not pulling a lever which activates a God machine.  What prayers do is something other than human manipulation of the divine. So where do prayers go, and what do they do?  

I think Oliver is evoking the mystery of prayer.  We cannot sketch out a cause and effect line between where our prayers begin and where God answers them.  When we are in pain and suffering, we pray for God to make the pain stop.  When we receive a dreadful diagnosis, the family gathers around praying for a miracle.  When natural disaster strikes, we pray for God’s presence, we pray for relief, and we pray that the winds will cease, the earthquake stops its tremors, and the fires cease their raging.  Where do all those prayers go, and what do they do?

The Jewish theologian Joshua Abraham Heschel writes of prayer in his book I Asked for Wonder that “to pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.”  Heschel conjures up the notion of dreams because he saw that prayer was more than the assertion of human desire and need.  It is that, to be sure.  But more fundamentally, prayer is an opening up of our very selves to God’s presence.  We begin with our human frailties, our narrow concerns, but we end up somewhere else.  Broader, imaginative, limitless.  To dream is to open our souls to the possibility that the tired narrative of "it will always be this way" must be set aside. The opposite of dreaming is our attempt to control and domesticate God.      

After a grueling day, we might begin a prayer by saying “God, I’m tired and I’m angry.  I just want peace.”  We just told God what was on our mind and heart.  That’s prayer.  But then, we might begin to stretch our imagination and enter the realm of dreams in our prayer.  God, I can’t see a way out of this pain I’m in, and I don’t have any hope.  But you are a God who breathes life into dry bones.  You are forever doing something new.  You are restless in your capacity to love and to renew and to care for this broken world.  Show me the way towards renewal for me.  Show me the way out of my pain.  Help me to see your vision for my life.  And the God who inspired the poetry of Isaiah might just say, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Where do prayers go, and what do they do?  Well, I don’t know exactly.  But, I do know this.  I can’t imagine what life would be like if I couldn’t pray.  And so I abandon the desire to have a perfect theory of prayer.  I get rid of the conceit that I can explain exactly how it works to you, and to you, and to you.  And I find that in the middle of talking to a friend, I am in the middle of a prayer.  I find that at the close of a conversation, I have been praying the whole time. I discover that when I say what is on my heart, and I get out all the truth I have to offer, then I am ready for newness. And that too, is prayer.