Through the Roof

Disruption. Annoyance. Invasion.

Before  Sunday night, I had never thought those words in regard to one of the stories of Jesus…and now I can’t stop thinking about it that way.

It’s my friend and pastor Elizabeth’s fault.

The story is in Mark chapter 2. Some people bring their friend to Jesus, a friend who is paralyzed. Jesus has been doing amazing things, and it seems they love their friend enough that they hope bringing him to Jesus can bring some healing. But when they arrive, it’s thick with people, people crowded in and around this house where Jesus is speaking.

There’s no way to get to Jesus.

So four of the friends carry their immobile friend up on the roof. They dig through the earthen roof. Just picture that disruption, as clay-like pieces fall on Jesus down below, while the friends do their work. They lower the man down through the hole they’ve made, forcing Jesus to have to make a decision about what he will do.

The knot Elizabeth tied in my brain was to draw my attention to words I have glossed over all my life: “…he was at home.”

It’s Jesus’ house!

These people crowded in and around his house. These friends destroyed Jesus’ property, invaded his space, and made a paralyzed man trespass into Jesus’ home, forcing Jesus to engage.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to live like Jesus, trying to be like Jesus. To take him as my model. But honestly, too often I think how I am to “be like Jesus” is something that I control and decide. I too often forget how often actually being like Jesus means deciding how I will respond to the interruptions, the intrusions, the annoyances, the people that cross my boundaries and plant themselves right in my living room and make me decide how I will respond.

Do I have it in me to extend forgiveness, as Jesus did?

Do I have it in me to invite God’s power to heal, to be a conduit of God’s healing, as Jesus did?

Even when people break my stuff and invade my space and camp out and demand a response, right when I’m just trying to be in my safe zone with my people, when I’m trying to get stuff done?

Honestly, I like the Paul method better. I’ll plan a trip, I’ll decide where I’m going to “minister” and to whom I’ll give my time, and then I’ll come home and be done.

Or I even prefer the Philip method. I’ll go somewhere, listen for Spirit to guide me, and eventually end up really helping someone. (Then I get to go home.)

But I guess, if Jesus is the model, I have to think about how I respond when I feel invaded, disrespected, forced to deal with people on their terms, and not mine.

 

Newsflash: I don’t have it in me to be like Jesus.

 

But I’d like to be a person who is a conduit for God’s forgiveness and healing, and to have there be no restrictions on that, no open/closed times, no “do they deserve it?” barriers.

Which means I need Jesus to do some healing, forming, shaping…in me. And I suppose I can trust that Jesus will give me the space and boundaries I need, since he definitely took time away from crowds and ministry to be alone, too.

I’m open. Ready. Asking.

Listening for him to say to me, “Get up, take your mat, and walk.”

A Trigger Word Redeemed

This is a guest post. A friend of mine spoke words recently which deserve careful attention by others. For various reasons, she is not able to be public online, so I offered to post her words anonymously. Her story and her thoughtfulness show us a view of God who makes all things right out of deep love for us!

___________________

I have a secret. It’s a secret I’ve held all my life, for fear of losing what I hold most dear. I’ve let a few of you in on this secret. But have often feared the ramifications if I were to be forthright about who I am. Why, you wonder? What can she possibly have to hide. I am a member of one of the most maligned and misunderstood ethnic groups in the world today. Many American churchgoers would like to see my people run into the sea. 

What’s my secret? I am the daughter of a Palestinian war refugee. My mother was born in Jerusalem, where my family had lived for generations. A few months after her birth her father, my grandfather, was one of 93 killed by an Israeli terrorist’s bomb. Two years later, my grandmother fled in the middle of the night with her two young children, to escape what Israelis call the War of Independence. Palestinians call it the “Nakba”; the “Catastrophe”. My Mother grew up in a refugee camp in Beirut. And the terrorist who killed my, grandfather? He was later elected Prime Minister of the nation of Israel. 

I love God and God’s story. I desire nothing more than to be a part of it. Yet, I have struggled with the American evangelical gospel narrative. A gospel that says my people must be annihilated in order to bring about Jesus return. Even within my own bi-racial home, dispensational theology dominated.

Just a bit of background for those who didn’t grow up steeped in the American Evangelical tradition. Dispensationalism is a theological system birthed in America in the 1850’s and popularized over the past 160 years. The version I grew up around holds within it an eschatology that requires Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine be granted to the nation of Israel to set up the end times and bring about the return of Christ. That poses a problem for past and current Palestinian residents. This theology is intimately connected to the mis-treatment of the Palestinian people and our government’s support of the Israeli state. 

I’ve spent my life searching understanding of God that is inclusive, not exclusive— that includes people like me. One that truly is good news.

Being half white, I most often have a choice whether to be forthright or not about my mixed racial heritage, though as a child attending conservative Christian schools there were times I was teased and excluded because I stood out as different.

We say sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never hurt us. But even from a very young age we know this is a lie. Words are powerful. They shape our understanding of reality. The same is true of the words we use to tell story of God. I continue to sift through the story of faith I was handed as a child, and I find myself reacting strongly to particular words that paint a picture of a far different God than the God I have come to know.

As I grew in awareness of my heritage and the conversations about Israel in the evangelical churches I attended until college, I faced a very real dilemma. Hide my families story, and fit in or risk being on the outside.

I wonder if I would have walked away from faith completely had I not encountered Quakers, and the existence of a school called Ramallah Friends. Wait, there is a Christian group who sees the treatment of Palestinians over the past 72 years as wrong? Who don’t need to exclude Palestinians in order to make the story of faith work?

Story is a potent medium. How we tell God’s story has a human cost. Religion has always been a means to rationalize oppression and murder. Christianity is no exception. From the moment Christianity became co-opted by empire in the time of Constantine, shortly after the rise of the early church, it was used by some as a tool of oppression. We can look with chagrin at the bloody history that followed justified by a “scriptural mandate”, to name a few: the crusades, colonialism-which led to the oppression and murder of indigenous people around the world, the African slave trade, the holocaust, and the current marginalization, oppression and murder of the Palestinian people; the list could go on.   

Almost two years ago, we were asked to agree with a statement which explicitly excluded another entire group of people, those who identify as LGBTQ. You might be able to imagine my inner turmoil. This tumultuous time set me on a path of deconstructing my faith to its foundation— what do I believe to be true about God. What is God’s character, purpose and action in the world?

I firmly believe the lens through which we view ourselves and relate to others is shaped by our concept of God.

In the stories of Christ’s life and work in the Gospels, the arc of the entire biblical narrative, and my living experience of God, I see a God of unfathomably deep love that is about the work of mending the entire universe – which includes but is not limited to our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with creation. 

This bring us to my first trigger word: “Redeem.” Christians throughout the centuries have been very good at drawing lines, at proclaiming God’s favor only for the “redeemed.”  The idea being that Jesus life substituted on the cross for ours brings individual redemption, to individual lives creating a group of redeemed individuals who live in God’s favor. This is a very transactional view of redemption and leads to several problems: 

  • First, this way of understanding redemption implicitly creates categories: redeemed vs. unredeemed. Once we’ve divided humanity this way, it’s easy to apply value statements to the two groups. Valuable vs. worthless. Righteous vs. Infidels. Now we have justification for the atrocities we perpetrate. 
  • Second, it’s built on a picture of an angry God whose sense of justice needs satisfaction through blood sacrifice. 
  • Third, it is often coupled with the idea that the redeemed will be whisked away to heaven and the earth destroyed, so we can exploit creation for our own gain while we’re here. This understanding leaves us with brokenness at every level of relationship—with God, with others and with creation — can the way the church thinks about redemption be redeemed?

If our foundational belief about God is that God is a God of love, not violence, that the kingdom of God is intensely peaceable, and God’s purpose is to make things right, how does this impact our understanding of redemption? 

I know that I’m asking us to stretch our frame of a bit. The English definition of the word redeem is quite transactional:

Redeem

  • To buy or pay off; clear by payment: to redeem a mortgage. 
  • To buy back, as after a tax sale or a mortgage foreclosure. 
  • To recover (something pledged or mortgaged) by payment or other satisfaction: to redeem a pawned watch. 

So consider with me a few of uses of the word redeem found in the Hebrew Bible, stories from Old Testament stories, and see if this transactional definition of redeem rings true.  

In the book of Ruth, Ruth and Naomi are destitute. As widows they are the marginalized of their society. Ruth is picking fallen grain from the edge of Boaz’ field, Boaz sees her and inquires who she is. Something happens in the night between Ruth and Boaz, it’s not quite clear what, but the upshot of the story is Boaz becomes their kinsman-redeemer, buying Naomi’s family land and marrying Ruth. This redemption appears transactional.

The story of Hosea and Gomer is another instance where we find the word redeemed. A prophetic tale played out in Hosea’s life of God’s love for God’s people and willingness to bear shame in order to restore relationship. God tells Hosea to marry Gomer, a known prostitute. Shortly after the marriage. Gomer returns to her life of sleeping around.

Eventually she falls destitute and sells herself into slavery. God directs Hosea to go to the public square (thus bearing her shame) and redeem her. Again, money changes hands, so we can read this as transactional redemption as well. The uses of the word redeem in the Levitical law are also consistent with a transactional understanding.  

But the most central narrative to the Hebrew people’s identity turns this transactional view of redemption on its head. The word redeem is frequently used in the story of the Exodus from Egypt or texts that refer to it. Deuteronomy 15:15, “Remember when you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you.”  God made a covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation through which all nations would be blessed. But this newly formed people had fallen in to slavery in Egypt. God sets out with Moses help to redeem them. 

This redemption isn’t transactional. God doesn’t go pay Pharaoh for the Israelites. This act of redemption is about Shalom, setting things right. God’s people have been enslaved in Egypt. They are oppressed. They are suffering. God moves in might to redeem them. To restore them as a people, to bring freedom. 

God offers them renewed opportunity to live in worship of God, in whole relationship with each other and creation. As the central identity narrative of the Hebrew people, this idea of Redemption as God making things right would have shaped their understanding of the narratives found in Ruth and Hosea as well:

Boaz’s redemption of Naomi and Ruth is far greater than a monetary action. Boaz redeems Naomi’s place in society and offers Ruth, an outsider, standing within the community as his wife. It is a redemption of their family name, honor and position—an action of shalom- making right.

Hosea buys Gomer not to be his slave, but to restore her as his wife—a restoration of relationship, a making right—again Shalom.

This brings me to Christmas. What? From Hosea and Gomer to Christmas? That’s quite a leap you say—but hear me out. I love Christmas, it is for me the grand story of making things right. You see, I am all about incarnation. God choosing to enter the fragile and finite stuff of flesh and bone, to become one of us, now that’s magic. 

Come the New Year, I have hard time letting go of Christmas. Our tree stays up through Epiphany and some years the Christmas decorations might not be fully put away until February. We need incarnation, to soak in the reality that God, the divine trinity, loves us so deeply that God chose to become flesh in order to redeem us, to make right the brokenness in our relationship with God, with each other and with the earth.

I’ve sometimes pondered how my faith might differ had I grown up in my mother’s Orthodox tradition instead of my father’s protestantism. The Orthodox Church holds Christ’s incarnation as the pivot of history.

This God of love willing to incarnate to make all things right seems the antithesis of the God presented in a transactional or substitutionary view of redemption, an angry judgmental God demanding blood for sin. God, whom we agree is essentially love, purposed the death of God’s own son, turning away from him on the cross?

What of our tendency to judge the acceptability of others to God flows from a need to be sure of our own standing before this angry God whose need for satisfaction trumps love? 

An incarnational view of redemption, also called the recapitulation theory of atonement, pre-dates the idea of a transactional or substitutionary view of atonement within the life of the church. God in God’s unfathomably deep love chose to become one of us, reconciling humanity and divinity first within Christ, himself. Christ then lived a life of sacrificial love and obedience to God in opposition to the sinful way of the world, in so doing by his faithfulness Christ redeemed Adam’s unfaithfulness, a remedy for sin systemic and individual. God’s purpose in Christ is to unite humanity, all of creation actually, with God. Redemption, Shalom, for the whole world. 

This truth shines in John 3:16:

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” 

Putting the world right is redemption. God’s action and purpose in the world is redemption —the making whole of our relationship with God, with each other, with the world.

Jesus life and ministry demonstrates our loving God’s restorative purpose. Jesus spends his time with the hurting and the marginalized. He heals, forgives, raises up, dignifies those he interacts with. Jesus talks repeatedly about the kingdom of God, an upside down kingdom where the first shall be last and the foolish things of the world are used to shame the world’s wisdom.

Jesus is put to death, murdered, by the rulers and powers of a broken world. Each and every one of us is complicit with the world’s system. Any time we make decisions that break relationship with another, putting our own wants or desires above living in right relationship with God, others and creation—our desire for security, for advancement, to be right— we buy into the world’s sinful system. 

Jesus lived a sacrificially obedient life to its logical end – an unjust death at the hands of the world’s system of empire. The principalities of the world could not co-opt him; he refused to be complicit so they killed him. 

What is happening at the cross?

“Jesus sacrificed his life to show us the love of the Father. Jesus sacrificed his life to remain true to everything he taught in the Sermon on the mount about love for our enemies. Jesus sacrificed his life to confirm a new covenant of love and mercy. Jesus sacrificed his life to Death in order to be swallowed by death and destroy Death from the inside.”

[Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hand of a Loving God, p. 108]

If God is not abandoning Jesus on the cross, where is God in Jesus suffering? Where is God in the suffering of an ostracized child on the playground? In genocide, in famine, in war? How can we understand God’s posture toward Christ suffering on the cross, and towards us in our suffering? 

In the words of Pope Benedixt XVI:

“The Father supports the cross and the crucified, bends lovingly over him and the two are, as it were, together on the cross. So in a grand and pure way, one perceives there what God’s mercy means, what the participation of God in man’s suffering means. It is not a matter of cruel justice, not a matter of the Father’s fanaticism, but rather of the truth and the reality of creation: the true intimate overcoming of evil that ultimately can be realized only in the suffering of love.” 

God has not rejected Christ as he carries the weight of our sin, God co-suffers in love with Christ to condemn the world’s systems of violence, oppression and death. An un-redeemed perspective allows us to make redemption into a personal golden ticket out of hell. This leaves untouched the world’s systematic sin. Leaves the principalities and powers of this world in control and invites us to be complicit with them. We can decide who’s in and who’s out. Whose lives are expendable to bring about Christ’s return.   

So how do we live into a redeemed vision of redemption? This idea that God at the cross, through sacrificial love, is offering humanity a way out its continual cycle of greed, oppression and violence. We are invited to join God in co-suffering love with the vulnerable and oppressed, to live into the already-and-not-yet kingdom. For early Christians following the way of Jesus was about changed life here and now. 

Justin Martyr writes less than a hundred years after Christ about the mended way of life Jesus offers:

“We who formerly…valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies…”

[Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 14, as quoted in Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State University Press: 1986), p. 13.]

This redeemed picture of redemption leads me to a new set of questions: How do I as a Palestinian, a mother of grade school children, a community member, live with an attitude of Christ Jesus, who being very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant?  How do I, how do we enter ever more deeply into this mended way of life?

Queries for reflection:

In what ways does my picture of God need redeeming?

How might immersing myself in the relentless, persistent flood of God’s love transform my view of self, others and creation?

What does it mean for me to lean into the idea of mended relationship with God, humanity and the world?

Consider using loving kindness meditation this week: Visualize God’s love for you like a light surrounding you. Now visualize someone you care about and the light surrounding them. Now move it outward to your family, then further to your neighbors, your community, to specific marginalized groups, to the whole of creation. 

 

Fire Grew In My Soul

Our stories, our experiences. This is all we really have to share, all we really have to build connections and community with each other.

To tell our stories, to share our experiences requires us to reflect, to ponder, to get enough distance from the circling cycles of our own thoughts to see threads and themes, to perhaps find evidence of something Outside, an Other.

Achieving that distance-which-brings-perspective can enable our lives to be woven into the fabric of human community, past and present. Experiencing the distance-which-makes-space-for-the-Other is what the faith journey continues to be for me.

_____________________

Tonight things are coming together in my brain. For a long time, injustice and shattering and pain and broken relationships and confusion have been unavoidable around me. Seeing what I have seen, I no longer want to intentionally avoid this part of existence; that voluntary blindness itself would seem unjust. When you cannot fix the unfixable, when turning your eyes away seems criminal, what can you do?

While the brain keeps churning over and around, limping through the same rutted paths, sometimes the soul leads somewhere new.

At the deepest “me” part of me, I have not been able to let go of the Divine Other who has found me, the one I easily name as Jesus, as Savior. And in that deepest part, the Spirit has never stopped prompting things. Tonight I’m seeing how the Spirit has been whispering to me to feed my soul with fuel, fuel for the Spirit to kindle fire. The fuel has come from others who also name Jesus. I am connected to them as God brings warmth to my soul and new light to my gaze as I examine the world again. Perhaps in my sharing, you may find fuel for the Spirit to kindle fire in you.

______________________

For months, I’ve fed my soul almost daily with the words and prayers of Christian women medieval mystics. There are repeating, deepening layers to how they provide fuel in me. In the first reading, I highlight sections that speak to me. Some days there are no highlights at all, others provide holy moments. Then about once a month, I go back through the highlights, and I pray them, sift them, mull them, asking God’s Spirit to help me put them into my words, into words that make them alive for me. This act is itself another holy moment. I then take the paraphrased prayers and make myself a calendar of daily prayers.

So most days, I’m reading raw material from one of these women for the first time, and I am also praying and meditating on a prayer that I have sat with two times before. On this third time through, I ask Jesus how it can take root in my thoughts, my actions, my day, my soul.

Today’s thrice-examined prayer was from Catherine of Siena. It’s been burning hot, creating longing, helping me see connections that had been hidden in the dark. She’s describing what I’m writing about in this post, describing her own soul so aflame with the power of God that it takes God’s very Self to keep her life itself from extinguishing. She’s giving voice to what it is like to not turn away from sorrow and also how sorrow will not overwhelm.

And, not content to stay there, she beckons us to join her in a purification journey, eyes wide open to both the Divine One and to ourselves, a purification journey that does not separate us from flawed humanity and flawed institutions, but produces a hunger for all to be transformed by God, as we bring our personal and social leprosy intentionally into the purifying fire of God’s very being.

As light and knowledge increased in my soul
a sweet sorrow grew in me.
And at the same time,
my sorrow was diminished
by the hope which the Supreme Truth gave me.

As fire grows when it is fed with wood,
the fire grew in my soul;
grew so large and so hot
that it seemed no longer possible
for the body to endure it.
It seemed the soul would have to leave the body.

Had I not been surrounded
by the strength of Him who is the Supreme Strength
it would not have been possible
to live a moment longer.

Then I,
purified by the fire of divine love,
engulfed in the knowledge of myself and of God,
I grew hungry
for the salvation of the whole world,
for the reformation of the Holy Church.

And as my hope grew,
my hope of my salvation and my reformation,
I rose with confidence before the Supreme Father,
showing Him
the leprosy of the Holy Church,
and the misery of the world.

Catherine of Siena (1347-1380, my paraphrase)
My story, my experience, is that I long for this. I desire:
To fuel the Spirit fire in me.
To be painfully and wonderfully shaped, transformed, purified, made holy.
To see the salvation and reformation of the whole world so that the sufferings of my oppressed sisters and brothers are lessened and healed.
To have confidence and hope grow in me.
To rise, to hold before Jesus all in the world that still needs redemption.

And the winner is…

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…#5 seed Branches! Thanks for joining in.

I must apologize…I will not be doing the planned third round of Advent Caroling Madness, “O Holy Night.” I’ve had a virus/flu that has hung on and sapped my energy, so I didn’t get the bracket created this weekend like I planned. Family is beginning to arrive, and I think I need to make the choice to lay down the last round.

So enjoy your Christmas, everyone! Thanks for joining in and we will be back next year.

Finals–I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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Here we go! Votes in by Sunday at 8 pm PST.

#5 Branches vs. #6 Five Strings

Round 3–I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day

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You people are weird.

Vote by Saturday at 7 pm PST, and I’ll give through Saturday to get your nominations for the best version of “O Holy Night”.

#5 Branches vs. #9 Sleeping at Last

 

#6 Five Strings vs. #10 Slavic Chorale

Round 2–I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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My brain is trying all the things.

“I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.” “I can still listen to what I want to listen to.” “I know you are, but what am I?” BUT IT’S NOT WORKING!!!

I hate democracy. I’m all for rule by the superior classes, and OF COURSE I get to decide who is in the ruling oligarchy. AND IT WON’T INCLUDE BETHANY BYLSMA!!

So I guess you can vote. Whatever. Do it before Friday at 5 pm PST.

#9 Sleeping at Last vs. #16 Johnny Cash

 

#5 Branches vs. #13 John Gorka

 

#3 Echosmith vs. #6 Five Strings

 

#2 The Opiate Mass vs. #10 Slavic Chorale

Mystery

(Message given December 9, 2018 at Newberg Emerging Friends Church)

choral book

The mystery of Christmas.

It’s something we hear a lot about at this time of year, held out there for us as part of the magic we might be missing in the bustle. Embrace the mystery!

What exactly do “they” mean when “they” say that? Probably not the “Twelve Slays of Christmas…”

twelve_slays_christmas

…or “Murder for Christmas”.

murder for christmas

Nope, I’m guessing the magical “mystery” of Christmas is probably summed up best like this:

Now, far be it from me to argue with “them” or especially with Amy “She-Who-Is-Christmas” Grant, but…

Look, speaking as the self-proclaimed expert on Christmas nostalgia, I gotta say: what’s with the big focus on mystery at Christmas? What I love about Christmas is the traditions, the patterns, the nostalgia, the doing it all the same way! There are no SURPRISES. 

That’s why I can listen to the Ray Conniff Singers at Christmas time, because it reminds me of Christmases I knew growing up. That’s why I inflict Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith on my family every year, because they are FAMILIAR! Not because they are a mystery.

And if we think about the story itself: I mean, come on, where is there mystery? We know the plot by this point, am I right? My non-faith friends at work know the plot. Why the word mystery at Christmas? It’s not about surprises, it’s about the tried and true, the known and familiar…right?

What if I told you…and lean close, that’s the cue that I’m putting on my movie trailer announcer voice and am about to say something super obvious

What if I told you…you can have your known and familiar and nostalgic Christmas AND you can embrace the mystery? What if I told you…mystery, in the biblical sense, in the wonderful sense…isn’t really about SURPRISE at all! (At least not at this point in history.)

Mystery IS a wonderful word to noodle around in our minds at Christmas, to help us delve into a meaningful experience which goes even beyond my love for nostalgia. I love that I was assigned this word as something to explore tonight, because Christmas mystery is both something revealed in the past, and something that invites us infinitely into the future.

But first…we need to untangle ourselves a bit from some of the layers of the word “mystery”.

I grew up with one of the great mystery solvers in history very much in the forefront of my mind.

mystery machine

Scooby Doo! The Mystery Machine! Every single episode, “those meddling kids” followed the clues and solved the mystery. I was taught that’s what mysteries are–mysteries are things to be solved. Figured out. Sleuthed.

It’s strong in our British and American literature. Those great mystery writers, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to name two, who created Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey…they have woven their way into our national consciousness. 

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Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation of Sherlock Holmes, a detective who keeps appearing in adaptation after adaptation.

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In all of these, we learn that in the face of a mystery, you look for information. It’s cerebral, an intellectual exercise. It’s deduction. If you find enough of the pieces, you can put it all together in a satisfying answer that brings closure for everyone. 

I think a lot of us have that idea in mind as we hear “mystery” today in our world. 

But biblically, the Greek word “musterion” is quite a bit different. We get our English word mystery directly from the Greek “musterion”, not as a translation, but simply by transliterating the letters. We took the word, but we’ve changed the meaning.

In the bible, “musterion” is a secret…a Divine secret. It is a secret that cannot be figured out or deduced or known by human beings. It’s a Divine secret that must be revealed by God, because it is so far out of realm of conception, so far out of the bounds of how the world functions. It’s beyond deduction.

The great thing is, God LOVES being a revealer of mysteries! Mystery in this sense is like the glee felt when hosting a party, where you’ve given thought and time and attention to every detail, and have some special element that each guest will love. You can’t WAIT to get to the day and reveal the mystery of all that you’ve prepared to honor and celebrate each person at the party!

Biblical mystery, Divine mystery, Christmas mystery is just this: God having a plan to show love and care in a way that no one could possibly have guessed; and the joy of revealing the ever-deepening layers of this well-prepared secret!

You see this through the references to mystery in the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 2:7: “No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.” God’s had this planned for our good for a long time!

What is the mystery? Well, it’s several things, actually. God has a lot of good things planned for us! But first and foremost, Colossians 2:2 lays it out: “…in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ…”

The most profound mystery, the most powerful and essential Divine secret revealed for our love and care, is Jesus himself…God laying aside power and majesty, identifying with humanity, in the most humble way. Jesus taking on brown, marginalized flesh. God forever joining God’s self to humanity and to this infuriatingly unjust and oppressive world.

As confusing as I pretended it was for me at the start of this message, this is exactly why it is right for Christmas to be associated with mystery. 

So the Incarnation is the central mystery, the essential secret revealed to the world for our redemption.

But as I said, like a deliciously inventive and creative author, God has more secrets and plot twists to delightfully reveal. Just when the Jewish people started to get their head around the incarnation, here came another mystery, in Ephesians 3:6: “The mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

That’s one they couldn’t deduce! That’s one they fought and wrestled with for awhile, and it needed a lot of Spirit work and revelation for everybody to grasp and accept it. Jesus becoming a Jewish baby didn’t make them exclusive winners. The Incarnation is humanity’s mystery to share-it’s for everyone!

And then another delicious plot twist, as the mystery deepens even more, as a more complete plan was revealed. Ephesians 1:8b-10: “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God’s will according to God’s good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment.”

What is this mystery? “To bring unity to ALL things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”

Not just the people group Jesus was born into.

Not just the Gentiles, not just all humanity. But EVERYTHING. Jesus becoming human is transforming and bringing unity to EVERYTHING. All things in heaven and on earth. All of creation. All of the spiritual realm. All the powers that seem at war with each other, destructive to humanity and creation, EVERYTHING is going to be brought into proper alignment and unity by Jesus. 

This is the far reaching power of this mystery which God has revealed! This is the glory of God’s plan from before creation. 

This is our bright and shining hope in a dim and dark existence; a divine secret and a cosmic hope that keeps finding new layers of depth as time passes on.

From the cosmic stretch which includes everything in the universe, all the way to the intimate personal connection with us…this mystery knows no bounds.

Colossians 1:27: “God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Christ in you! Not only joining in solidarity with marginalized people long ago. Not only spreading beyond Israel to all of humanity. Not only coming against cosmic spiritual darkness and bringing all of creation and heaven and humanity into unity with Jesus.

Christ in you. Christ with you. Christ living, breathing, surrounding, healing, empowering, encouraging, convicting, forgiving, and leading…in you!

Some would say the ultimate mystery of God is the union we can experience with God’s very self, all made possible by Jesus. 

Do you see? 

Do you see how mystery is the past, what God has already done, the amazing truth revealed in Christ’s birth? And do you also see how it is future, infinite, ever-expanding…drawing us deeper, calling us to a union with God in which we cannot help but be surprised and beautifully moved to new and never-before-seen places?

Richard Rohr says it powerfully in The Divine Dance: 

“Remember, mystery isn’t something that you cannot understand–it is something that you can endlessly understand! There is no point at which you can say, ‘I’ve got it.’ Always and forever, mystery gets you!”

It took me several weeks after they asked me to speak on mystery tonight to realize this topic had a big connection to my own spiritual life over the last 6 or 7 months.

I’ve been reading Christian mystics; specifically, medieval women Christian mystics. 

David Benner writes,

“…Mystics differ from non-mystics in their rejection of the notion that the mysteries of life are simply gaps in knowledge. They realize that the really important mysteries of life will not be eliminated by reason or experimentation. They teach us how to love mystery rather than fear it. They teach us humility, tolerance and wonder.”

Mystics show us a pathway outside of our rational, deductive spirituality and help us embrace mystery and union from a different place. And like an onion, layers upon layers unfold before us in our exploration. Always, always, the mystics are describing an inexorable movement toward intimate union with God.

Mechthild of Magdeburg, from the 1200’s, captures this:

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Love leads us into mystery, binding us layer by layer, piece by piece with the Creator of the Universe. It is rooted, so essentially and eternally rooted, in the work of God through Christ, bound with the manger-born one who taught and healed and bled, out of love for us.

Listen to Hildegard of Bingen, 100 years earlier in the 1100’s:

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Reading, praying, meditating, dwelling in the words and the worlds of these women has helped me truly embrace the Mystery.

It’s deepening my connection to the past reality of Jesus who lived and breathed and walked our world. It’s returned a sense of awe, a sense of wonder…a profound awareness of the great ‘otherness’ of God, but this is the kind of awareness that produces longing. This journey has opened up a new future, caused a desire in me to “endlessly understand”, as Rohr describes it.

Side benefits have appeared along the way. Reading back almost a millennium, the cultural barriers and blinders sometimes so obviously appear. Even for Hildegard, an accomplished theologian who wrote popes and kings, who toured Germany twice on preaching tours as a woman in the middle ages…even for Hildegard, who critiques abuses of the power systems in the church and the state…it’s so easy, from a thousand years distance, to see that even some of those critiques themselves are bound by the time and culture in which she lived.

But then there are these moments…these holy moments when words seem to literally have dripped from the heavens through her pen, and almost a thousand years later they can soar off the page and explode with power into my soul. 

In these words and moments I see the God I know today; I glimpse the Divine One, beyond time, beyond culture. And there are even times where the power of the words gives me glimpses of yet-unknown facets of our Creator, creating a yearning in me to experience and live in a yet deeper union with God.

Friends, the proverbial “they” are right!

Mystery beckons us this Christmas and always. The mystery of Incarnation, the mystery of union with God lies open before us. May we receive it. May we pursue it. May we be transformed by it.

May we, with humility, acknowledge our own barriers of culture and time which interfere with our judgments of right and wrong, just and unjust. May we acknowledge we may not have it all nailed down. May we let the Divine lift off the page, into our minds and hearts, and may we walk into the ever-deepening unknown intimacy, with Jesus as our guide. 

I’ll close with the words of Catherine of Siena, from the 1300’s, letting her words lead us into a time of open worship:

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Bracket Released–I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Some people (cough cough Bethany Bylsma) don’t seem to appreciate the choice of this particular song. But I am enjoying dwelling with this through several versions, melodies, and artists.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells” in 1863. His second wife had passed away, his son had joined the Union Army against his wishes; peace was far from his experience.

For me, this song’s power (and therefore the essential piece that must be captured) comes in the embrace of opening one’s eyes to the lack of peace in our world, followed by a transition to Christian hope. It’s not an easy transition to live, or to interpret musically. Smoothing over the pain, or moving to easy hope, are not ultimately satisfying options for me.

And in despair I bowed my head

There is no peace on earth, I said

For hate is strong, and mocks the song

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep

God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, goodwill to men.

So here we go with 16 diverse versions of this poetic Christmas Carol. Give a listen, share it around, and get your votes in by Wednesday at 5 pm PST.

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#1 The Civil Wars   This exquisite version was submitted by both Bethany Lee and Kelsey Hampton. For what I am looking for (as listed above), this nails it. The intricate, subtle harmonic changes in the heart of the song, combined with their passionate, expressive vocals make it an easy top seed.

#16 Johnny Cash     Bethany Bylsma nominated this one. Cash is expressive at other times, but this one doesn’t seem to move with the song at all.

 

#8 Casting Crowns     Jennifer Hanziel nominated this version. Alternate melodies abound on this carol, and this is one of the alternates.

#9 Sleeping at Last      One of several Bethany Bylsma nominations, though she claims she doesn’t like the choice of this song…

 

#5 Branches     I remember discovering this group on the very first Advent Caroling Madness. This version is nominated by Jennifer Perez. I had a difficult time seeding this one; at one point as low as 9, at another point as high as 3.

#12 The Carpenters    Krissi Carson nominated this one, sharing that the Carpenters Christmas Album was a wonderful part of her growing up experience.

 

#4 Westminster Concert Bell Choir    I mean, come on: what’s the title of the song? A bell choir has to get a good seed. But on my second listen through, I really was impressed with what the arrangement does with the despair and with the hope. It’s a good one.

#13 John Gorka     This is, I believe, the first nomination from Jared Jones. I’m glad he sent it in-I was completely unfamiliar with this artist.

 

#6 Five Strings        This, too, is an alternate tune, and it is quite intriguing. I found the tune and arrangement to evoke more of the hopeful side of this tune. Thanks to Dawn Reed for submitting!

#11 Found Wandering    Robin Mohr nominated this local Philadelphia group. This is another I had difficulty seeding, and it fell to 11 primarily because of matchups.

 

#3 Echosmith         I would be intrigued to hear this group arrange this today. The recording is from 2013, and they look quite young in the video…and there are some really nice pieces in this. I think with the maturity that I’m sure they have gained, it might be even better now. Thanks to Robin Mohr for this submission as well.

#14 Suzy Boggus & Chet Atkins       Ronis Chapman is another new participant, with her first submission: thank you!

 

#7 Eclectic Christmas      I may get in trouble for not giving my friends and son-in-law a #1 seed…but it primarily has to do with the fact that I appear to be the only person on the planet who does not like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. But this is a creative mash up by talented people. Submitted by Nate and Amy Macy.

#10 Slavic Chorale      David Sherwood offers us this well done choir piece, using the same tune as the Casting Crowns version. It dropped to #10 because I originally was going to pit the versions against each other in the first round, but then that didn’t seem fair.

 

#2 The Opiate Mass          This is haunting, shading toward the despair side all the way through. But, the context makes that understandable and also lends it such power. Martha Wood submitted this, and let us know that this was performed on the day of the shooting at Newtown Elementary.

#15 Sarah McLachlan        We haven’t had much yelling this year (well, other than Wolves at the Gate), but this seed may do it. Robin Mohr and Bethany Bylsma nominated perennial entrant Sarah McLachlan, who infects me with as much passion as my dental floss.

 

There you are! Fire up your speakers and headphones, and make your votes! You have until Wednesday at 5 pm PST.