Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Tender Time

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that He is near, at the very gates. (Mark 13.28-29)

The Most Impossible Ways

The other night Walt and I fell asleep to a local channel that airs “The 700 Club” each morning. When we awoke to the pseudo-news program hosted by far-right zealot and doomsayer, Pat Robertson, my first impulse was to grab the remote and punch in random numbers; anything would be less toxic. But his opening froze me solid. “It looks like Israel’s set to launch air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities,” he said—or something to that effect. I stared at video cobbled from file footage and nebulous sound bites (with nary a word from high-ranking Israeli, Iranian, US, or European officials), while an ominous voiceover indicated Israeli bombers were queued up, ready to go at any moment. Visions of World War III erupted in my head as I raced for the American networks, BBC, and France’s Canal 5: not a whisper about imminent Israeli air strikes anywhere, not even in the news crawls. “What a boogey man!” I sighed, feeling like a dunce. But was I?

It’s no secret that Israel has plans in place to disable Iran’s nuclear capabilities, nor that its penchant for self-serving acts of aggression has become a constant source of regional grief and worldwide angst. Robertson’s sky-is-falling scenario wasn’t beyond the pale. It just wasn’t true—yet. That it starred two loose cannons (Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu) on opposing sides of humanity’s longest-running race war certainly leant it credibility. Once again, threatening disaster confirmed we live in perilous times, when monomaniacal powers and people exhibit no concern about shipping the rest of us to Hell in a hand basket for the sake of their obsessions.

A nearly identical atmosphere hung thick with jitters and gloomy prospects hovers above Mark 13. It's there that Jesus warns the disciples not to be alarmed by global instability and religious hysteria, but to remain watchful in their work for the Kingdom’s sake. We’ve heard this a lot lately: “I will return. Be ready.” Though theories abound regarding the Second Coming, the essence of His message is lost on no one. We approach each moment as if it’s our last before The Big Moment. And while slating this passage as Sunday's Gospel seems a bizarre choice to kick off Advent's anticipation of Christ's birth, its overtones of wakefulness couldn’t be timelier. In an age when the worst of all possible worlds seems all too possible, Advent reassures us that God reaches us in the most impossible ways.

A Longer View

Scholars call Mark 13 (and its mirror passages in Matthew 24 and Luke 21) “The Little Apocalypse,” citing it as a miniature precursor to The Revelation’s epic nightmare. An innocent—rather sweet—comment prompts its litany of dark predictions. A disciple, perhaps visiting Jerusalem for the first time, looks at its magnificent Temple and architecture and says, “Wow!” To which Jesus replies: “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (v2) After the group leaves the city to relax on Mt. Olivet, Peter, James, John, and Andrew—the first disciples—ask Jesus privately, “When will Jerusalem be destroyed? Will there be signs that it’s soon to happen?” Before we get to His response, we should note their lack of curiosity about why or how the city will fall infers widespread assumption it’s only a matter of time. (As it turns out, the Romans raze the Temple and much of the city in 70 CE.) Thus, Jesus’s answer in verses 3-23 is a short-range forecast not to be misconstrued as end-time prophecy. Regarding Jerusalem's demise, He tells the disciples to expect an upsurge in religious chicanery, warfare, earthquakes, and famines. They will be unjustly tried, persecuted, and hated because of Him. When these events start to materialize, Jesus says, “Head for the hills, because it’s going to get crazier by the minute.” Bogus messiahs will pop up everywhere, performing signs and wonders that might even fool them. “Be alert. You've been warned.” He says. (v23)

Then Jesus offers the disciples a longer view—and the pending chaos He just described sounds like a picnic. “After that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” He says. (v24-25) The Son of Man will come in the clouds, dispatching angels “to gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heaven.” (v26) Jesus cautions, “When you see these things, know that He is near" (v29), adding in verse 32 that only God knows the day or hour when they’ll transpire. He closes in verse 37: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Watching, Waiting, and Ready

Realizing Jesus gave them more information than they need—but not much they can actually use—might lead the disciples to think, “Thanks for nothing.” On further reflection, however, they’d find the inconspicuous gem tucked inside His end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it preview. In verse 28, He advises, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” And that’s where this highly problematic text's Advent message coalesces.

Advent is the tender time, when bleak realities of our wintry world give way to revived hope and first signs of renewal. What we perceive as grim likelihoods and inevitabilities are simply the dying gasps of an overlong season. Whatever happens in the world at large and in our own lives will happen. We accept that by admitting very little of what affects us rests in our control. Yet none of it possesses sufficient power to halt time. Without fail, fragile rigidity brought on by anxieties pass with their passing. Sooner than we imagine, persistent fatalism yields to resurgent faith. As we reacquaint ourselves with the organic flow of God’s calendar, we rediscover how supple and resilient we truly are.

The Christ Child appears at the height of global chaos, when new technologies give rise to corruptive wealth, militaristic overkill, unprecedented oppression, and fabricated myth. The Incarnate God enters the worst of all possible worlds at the least likely moment to reach us in the most impossible ways. Nobody sees it coming, yet there it is, and very soon it's apparent the harshest human condition cannot prevail against the tenderness of divine spring. It occurs so suddenly we’ll miss it if we’re not watching, waiting, and ready to receive it when it comes. That's what Advent wants us to remember most of all.

O God, we come to another Advent, praying You’ll steer our attention from the bleak winter pounding at our doors so we may rediscover the tenderness blossoming within. We watch, wait, and stand ready for You to rid us of fearful rigidity. Make us supple and resilient once again. Amen.

Advent teaches us the bleakest circumstances can’t prevent the resurgent tenderness of divine spring.

Postscript: Advent at S-F

As in previous years, Straight-Friendly will observe Advent by resuming daily posts on Monday—most being reposts of earlier reflections (and labeled as such). Sunday and occasional midweek posts will be new. Whether revisiting a familiar entry or exploring a fresh one, I trust you’ll drop by often and enrich this tender time we share with your personal thoughts and invaluable insights. Praying a blessed, tender Advent for one and all, I can think of no finer jump-start to the season than R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the Word As We Know It”.

That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane - Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn - world serves its own needs, regardless of your own needs. Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt no, strength no. Ladder structure clatter with fear of height, down height. Wire in a fire, represent the seven games in a government for hire and a combat site. Left her, wasn't coming in a hurry with the furies breathing down your neck. Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop. Look at that low plane! Fine then. Uh oh, overflow, population, common group, but it'll do. Save yourself, serve yourself. World serves its own needs, listen to your heart bleed. Tell me with the rapture and the reverent in the right - right. You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light, feeling pretty psyched.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

Six o'clock - TV hour. Don't get caught in foreign tower. Slash and burn, return, listen to yourself churn. Lock him in uniform and book burning, blood letting. Every motive escalate. Automotive incinerate. Light a candle, light a motive. Step down, step down. Watch a heel crush, crush. Uh oh, this means no fear - cavalier. Renegade and steer clear! A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies. Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

The other night I tripped a nice continental drift divide. Mount St. Edelite. Leonard Bernstein. Leonid Breshnev, Lenny Bruce and Lester Bangs. Birthday party, cheesecake, jelly bean, boom! You symbiotic, patriotic, slam, but neck, right? Right.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it.

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine...fine...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Always, In All Circumstances

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)

Continuing a tradition begun last year, Straight-Friendly celebrates Thanksgiving in song—with an emphasis on giving thanks when we may not feel like it, when true gratitude may set us apart, and when the complexity of life frays our connection to thankfulness as an act of faith.

Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

“Take a Little Time,” Andraé Crouch

“Now Thank We All Our God,” Lincoln Minister School Chamber Choir

“Gratitude,” Nichole Nordeman

“In Everything (Give Him Thanks),” The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir

“Jubilate Deo,” The University of Utah Singers

(Rather than translate “Jubilate Deo,” I’ll let these charming you fellows do it.)

“Thanksgiving Song,” Mary Chapin Carpenter

“For All You’ve Done,” Hillsong

“Simple Gifts,” Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss

Prayer of Thanks, Rabbi Lazer Brody

“Be Grateful,” John Legend & Roots, featuring Jennifer Hudson

Always, and ever, I thank God for all of you!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Richness as a Reflex

The righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” (Matthew 25.37-39)

For thus says the Lord GOD: I Myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… They shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture. (Ezekiel 34.11, 14)

The Issue of Lives

The Occupy Movement has taken a ribbing from TV pundits and late-night comedians. Yet—other than those pathetically enslaved by neoconservative, me-myself-and-I doctrines—no public sector has cried out against its ingenious strategy to change the economic conversation from tax policy to social justice. Pitching their tents on financial centers' doorsteps forced us to face the ugly realities of thousands done in by soulless graft. With dispossessed, unemployed, and other beleaguered citizens tucked away in outlying tent cities, welfare motels, and overcrowded shelters, the nation’s wealthiest percentile felt no shame in whining about potential tax increases. They tried to divert accusations of greed by posing as “job creators”—thus, deserving special protections in order to fix a crisis they contributed to and profited from.

By voluntarily existing as economic refugees, Occupy activists awakened public consciousness to the issue of lives, not dollars; morals, not money; people, not power. A society that coddles the mightiest at the expense of the weakest invites crippling instability and certain decline. A nation that subjects many to hardship while succoring a few denies its greatness. Leaders who tout freedom to justify socioeconomic inequities are neither freedom and justice’s guardians nor equality’s champions. (All they are is living proof there’s more to patriotism than pinning a flag to one’s lapel.)

Participation in a just society begins by denouncing the right to choose who is and isn’t worth attention, or when it’s right and wrong to come to another’s aid. Such choices are pre-decided for the community’s welfare and stability. Attention must be paid to everyone who needs it. The time to help the less fortunate is all the time. The Occupy Movement confronts Americans with their civic duty to oppose favoritism that undermines national stability and the common good. In the final public discourse before His arrest (Matthew 25.31-46; Sunday’s Gospel), Jesus charges us with the same responsibilities, for the same reasons. But He raises the stakes by stressing that failure to honor His principles exposes us to grave personal risk from which we can never recover. His gist boils down to this: the issue is lives. Morals. People.

Rich Enough to Care

Since arriving in Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus hasn’t stopped talking about His imminent departure and telling stories about people entrusted with great wealth and responsibility. Most of His followers get it by now. More perceptive disciples may even gather the theological implications, understanding Jesus’s Messianic role centers on establishing God’s kingdom and entrusting it to us. In case they missed this in His parables, however, Jesus uses His last preaching opportunity to paint a dramatic vision of how it will work.

When the Son of Man comes as Earth’s Supreme King, Jesus says He’ll gather the nations and, like a shepherd does with sheep and goats, divide the people into two groups. He’ll commend the sheep, saying they fed Him, gave Him drink, welcomed Him, clothed Him, cared for Him when He was sick, and visited Him in prison. Those He praises are befuddled. “When did we do that?” they ask. The King replies, “Just as you did it to the least member of My family, you did it to Me.” (v39) He turns to the goats and says they failed on all counts. “What do you mean?” they protest. “We saw You never wanted for a thing!” The King answers, “But you ignored the least. So you ignored Me.” The story ends with both groups in shock. One can’t believe it’s rewarded with eternal life; the other can’t believe it’s sentenced to eternal punishment.

I always get a kick out of the sheep’s consternation. Their response explains why the King honors them so highly. It’s as if they ask, “What’s the big deal? We had it, they needed it, and so we gave it away, knowing there’s more where that came from.” What made them rich enough to care was not caring about riches. By calling them “sheep,” Jesus evokes Judaic respect for their virtues: faith in the shepherd, obedience, humility, and so on. Most of all, sheep exemplify community. The tiniest threat to the littlest lamb endangers the entire flock. When pasture is plentiful, all are fed. Otherwise, all suffer, because the flock’s stability relies on its ability to share. In contrast, goats are fiercely territorial, acquisitive creatures that lock horns the instant they sense one of their own encroaching on their space. (That’s why we associate gentleness with lambs and brutishness with goats.)

Stability and Growth

In Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel 34, we’re once again reminded God is our Shepherd. “I Myself will search for My sheep, and will seek them out,” God says in verse 11, vowing we will “lie down in good grazing land” and “feed on rich pasture.” (v14) God goes on to say in verse 16, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” The prophecy gets us to the essence of what Jesus wants us to see. It’s not ours to decide who merits our attention and when we should reach out to the least. Instead, we’re asked to choose how we regard the riches of God’s provision. We can either turn God’s goodness into a crippling burden or use its richness as a reflex. Either we obsess about hanging on to what we’ve got or we intuitively give it away, knowing there’s more where that came from.

Offering compassion, hospitality, and concern to those in need demands tremendous discipline and, often, staggering emotional sacrifice. But it costs us nothing. And in the end, it prospers communities we serve and us with enduring stability and growth. It should come so naturally we do it without thinking or talking about it. That’s difference between the sheep's “What did we do?” and the goats' “Look what we did!” Jesus teaches that true goodness isn’t defined by its doers’ abilities, but by its recipients’ inabilities. The least capable among us gain our highest attention because their needs are greatest. It’s that simple. And if that upsets and surprises us, Jesus tells us we’re in for a really upsetting surprise.

Free us, O Shepherd, from selfishness and insecurities and competitive streaks that endanger our communities and ignore Your commands. You’ve provided more than we need, enabling us to give it away without hesitation, knowing Your goodness is inexhaustible. Instill that truth so deep inside our being that it becomes instinctive. May we be counted worthy in Your sight. Amen.

The richness of God’s goodness to us enables us to give it away without hesitation or thought, knowing there’s always more where that came from.