Lent is very nearly upon us.

Did you groan at that? Even a little? Lent has something of a bad reputation as being a dark and punishing time – a time of deprivation and endurance. We slog through forty days without whatever little pleasure we’ve denied ourselves: Easter is our finish line, when deprivation can finally give way without guilt, and we can pat ourselves on the back for getting through such a miserable time.

It’s a cynical view, and one I hope none of your share in its entirety… but I very much doubt that there are many among us who didn’t recognize ourselves, at least a little, in the above description.

So perhaps this is the year to re-frame Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortality. More than that, we are reminded that we are all made of the same stuff – the same ash, the same stardust.

Given this perspective, what is it that we might give up, during these 40 days? What would change, for you, if you were to walk through this time, saying the Ash Wednesday blessing in your heart during every interaction: “Remember that you and I are dust, and to dust we shall return”?

In Lent, we remember Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, and the temptations that were presented to him: to use his abilities to feed himself, and calm his own hungers; to rule over all the world; to manipulate God.

During this time, perhaps we would do well to ask what temptations we face: To serve ourselves before others? To exercise power over others – our co-workers, our friends, our children? To try to bargain with God, or make God serve us? What is it that we are tempted to put before our love of God and God’s Creation?

What if our Lenten discipline this year were to give up convenience for the sake of community? If we were to stop using Dunkin Donuts styrofoam or plastic cups, and remember to bring our own instead? If we were to commit to buying local, or second-hand? To walking more and driving less?

What if our Lenten discipline this year were to broaden our perspectives: to commit to reading only books written by women, or people of color, Muslims, or LGBT folk? What might we learn about ourselves, our God, and our temptations, if we were to journal such an adventure? What might we learn, if what we gave up for Lent were an insular perspective?

It strikes me that Jesus did not fast so that he could really enjoy his first meal back after the wilderness experience. His fast was one of purification, of focusing priorities, of gaining perspective on the tempting distractions of this world. He fasted so that he could see the offers made him for what they were: idols that would turn him from God. He fasted so that he would be better prepared to serve God – to serve God’s creation and the Body of Christ – with his whole self.

Perhaps that should be the goal of our disciplines as well. May we remove from our lives that which distracts us from one another and from God. May our fasts leave us changed for the better, able to fully appreciate and live into the new life of Easter.

For Further Reading:
Why reading books by black* authors is important:
http://scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook/2016/01/26/want-black-lives-to-matter-want-to-help-end-racism-read/
*the principle applies to any non-white-straight-male authors, in my opinion

LGBT:
https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/lgbthttps://www.mombian.com/2016/01/11/2016-ala-awards-for-lgbtq-inclusive-kids-books/

Latin@:
https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/latino

African American:
http://www.theroot.com/photos/2014/12/the_15_best_fiction_novels_by_black_authors_in_2014.htmlhttp://www.theroot.com/articles/lists/2015/12/_14_of_the_best_nonfiction_books_by_black_authors_in_2015.html

 

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’     John 2: 3-5

For years, common knowledge among pastors and theologians has been that the Gospel of  John must be of much later origin than the others, because of its high christology. Doing away with the big words that those pastors and theologians tend to enjoy, this simply means that it has long seemed that this Gospel focuses more on the divinity of Christ – the God-attributes, than on his humanity.

But this would seem, on its face, to give lie to that claim. Miracle aside, this is a very human moment: a parent-child interaction which, but for the water-to-wine specifics, probably feels familiar to anyone who has children, or anyone who has ever been a child. Certainly, the snarky interaction in which Jesus insists, “I’m not doing anything, this is not my problem,” and his mother replies, “You’ll do something, because I said so,” is a familiar refrain to many.

This moment, like so many in this Gospel, speak not to John’s  supposed “high Christology”, but to the incredible importance, in this narrative, of the incarnation – the Word made very human flesh.

Because it is only humanity that requires prophecy.

It is only humanity that requires the voice of the prophets: those who try to bridge the gap between the human and the divine; those people of clear eyes and relentless truth-telling; those who shine a bright light into the many places that we’d really prefer to avoid, or at least keep secret, even from ourselves.  Prophets are those who call out our shadows – our failures of conviction and courage – and who will neither rest, nor let us rest, until we let our own light shine. Prophets make us face the real needs of the world around us, the world that God loves; they call us into the light to face the fears that we use to keep those needs at a comfortable distance from our neat, orderly lives.

Humans need prophets to make us see clearly who we are, in relation to world. But we also need prophets to make us see who we might become, if onlywe dared to let go our fears.

And the human Jesus needs a prophet every bit as much as any of the rest of us.

This Jesus, who is (in John) more than simply one of those who shine a light; who actually is the light itself: even Jesus needs a prophet. Even Jesus needs this moment of vision. Even Jesus, the Word made flesh – very human flesh – needs a prophet… and needs one who knows better than anyone else ever could his particular uncertain, anxious, fearful flesh. Becuase the role of prophet is not to show us previously unknown abilities, but to call us to action.  And so Jesus’ mother doesn’t tell him what to do, she simply tells him to do, and leaves the rest in his capable hands.

Because it turns out that his abilities are not at issue. There is no question in her mind or his whether or not he is capable of turning water to wine.  Rather, at issue is his readiness to start down this road, the end of which he sees so clearly before him.  At issue is his readiness to be the light, knowing how very much people fear to see even that which is right before them; knowing the lengths to which they will go to keep from seeing.  At issue is his readiness to be Good Shepherd, the one who will lay down life for his sheep.

The human Jesus, the word incarnate, needed his mother’s prophetic light on his own fear. He needed that reminder of who he is, and who he will become.

I suspect that this, too, is familiar to us. For we, too, with our fully human flesh, all too often need that light turned on us, revealing our own readiness, our own willingness to use our abilities.  We still need our prophets, as uncomfortable – and snarky – as they might often make us.  We, too need to have our failures and our fears exposed; we, too, need to see clearly who we are,  and who we might become.  For we, too, push back against the calls to do and to be in this world; we, too, hide in the shadows of our own making, reluctant to admit that the problems before us might be ours to resolve.

However we imagine ourselves responding to the prophets in our lives: when the moment of prophecy actually happens, and the light lays us bare, that exposure inevitably makes us anxious, and anxiety makes most humans lash out.  Unvarnished truth, however flattering to our own abilities, can be a terribly hard thing to hear. Which is why our response to prophets is consistent, throughout human history: in the face of prophecy, we become deflective, defensive, dismissive.

This is the response we saw with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: the wait-and-see, don’t-rock-the-boat, not-our-problem attitude of whites, anxious at the bright light that Dr. King and his colleagues shone on the systemic racism of the mid-20th cenntury. It was this response that prompted his Letter from Birmingham Jail – the jail into which the white authorities had put him, in the hopes of dimming or extinguishing his prophetic light.

Our response to prophets is neatly summed up in FBI label placed on Dr. King: “threat to National Security”.

Our response to modern prophets is visible in the deflective, defensive, dismissive tone that so many privileged folk take toward the Black Lives Matter movement; towards the plight of Syrian refugees, towards those in our own communities who are struggling with addiction.

What concern is that to me? we say, toward the modern-day prophets who are working to shine light into our current failures of conviction and courage; those prophets who are right now exposing our anxieties, made manifest in our snarky answers, in the refusal to use our obvious abilities to help.

Our response to prophets, major and minor, public and private; to friends and family, colleagues and church members who call us to examine anew who we are and who we might become is the most basic human survival response, which privileges anxiety over compassion:

My hour is not yet come we say, although not in quite those words. Often, it sounds more like:

They should have done what they were told.

What can you expect from that generation?

We’ve always done it this way before.

Whatever the words we choose, the response of separation and refusal speaks to the anxiety of being exposed.

Our response to prophets is splattered across pages of history, beginning well before Jesus attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. He knew this history, and I do not at all blame him for his anxiety.

But we come after.

The response of deflection, of defensiveness, of dismissiveness speaks loudly to our continuing need for those prophets who will call us anew, in this time, out of our human-flesh anxiety and into divine witness and Christian conviction.

For we follow in footsteps of this Word made flesh. We follow in the way of the one who set aside anxiety for the sake of compassion; the one who learned from his mother that prophetic love will triumph over the shadows of fear.

And we are called, again and again, to listen to that prophetic love.  We are called to follow the light, to follow the one who is light, even when it exposes us. We are called to set aside anxiety and fear for the sake of following the one who understands perfectly that very anxiety and fear, but who embodies for us a different response, a faithful response to prophecy. Out of the human-flesh anxiety of prophetic clarity, we are called to embody the extravangant signs of divine abundance, grace, and mercy that lift our abilities beyond all human fear.

Jesus, having gotten over his knee-jerk defensive “what concern is that to me?” response; having moved beyond the snarky anxiety of “my hour is not yet come”, starts willingly upon the trajectory to which the prophet called him. Jesus, exposed by prophetic clarity, gives us a new response: one which starts with the sweet taste of the best wine in abundance; one which starts not just with grace, but grace upon grace, both received and given.

It is clear, in this Gospel account, that he never forgot his own initial moment of very human fear, his own need for prophecy and light. For the only other moment in John’s Gospel where Jesus’ mother appears is right at the end, when we find her standing at the foot of the cross, with the unnamed Beloved Disciple – that character in the Gospel in whom we are to see ourselves.

And that mother, that prophet, is told to mother us; to prophesy to us, the Beloved Disciples, the disciples whom Jesus loves still.

And we are told to care for that mother, that prophet, however she might appear to us; whether as a voice on television, as a writer in a magazine or on social media; as friend, as family, as coworker, as churchgoer.  We are called to care for that prophet as our own; to care even for that one who holds the exposing light, who shows us who we are, who we might become: purveyors of God’s abundant, extravagant grace, as sweet as the finest wine, poured out still, for us all.

Glory to God in the highest!
Unto us is born this day
a Savior: helpless
vulnerable
entirely dependent
upon our compassion
our willingness to give room
to the presence of God
on earth.

Unto us is born this day
a baby
who bears the image of God
who contains the blessing of God
wrapped up, swaddled,
snuggled into the softest bed
available.

And angels sing, if we have ears to hear
the eternal song of counting
fingers and toes,
the coos and whispers beyond language
to soothe a screaming newborn,
the universal lullaby
of welcome
where we set aside,
for a moment,
the harshness of the world.

If we have ears to hear
what the earth-bound angels
announce,
then, God of mercy,
may we open our doors
to desperate strangers,
even if they’re from Nazareth
that backwater town
from which nothing good
could possibly come;
because we might be giving room
to God-made-flesh.

If we have ears to hear
the joyous, raucous,
exclamations of shepherds –
dizzy with the new-baby-smell
that clings, still, to their hands
despite the dirt –
if we have ears to hear,
beyond the impulse to dismiss
these evangelists who disturb our night
proclaiming the impossible
that God is here!
Right here: even here!
then, God of all,
may our eyes be opened
to the presence
of light in shadow
of eternal in temporal
of the Body of Christ
still walking this earth.

Creator God, source of life,
may we have ears to hear
the song of angels
in the voices of all
who call us to care for one another
as though we were caring for you;
who invite us to see
You
in unexpected human flesh,
who remind us that there is no
“us” and “them”
just your love incarnate
in a diversity of bodies.

Abiding God, resting,
trusting,
in our frail human protection,
may we have ears to hear
the proclamation of the shepherds
who guide your children
to see you
in Bethlehem feed-troughs,
nosed-at by sheep;
in hospital bassinets,
shaking with addiction;
in donated carriers,
outside closed borders:
in swaddling clothes,
God-with-us now as then,
on earth as in heaven.

God of Grace, upending power,
in whom vulnerability overcomes fear
and love triumphs over death
may we have ears to hear;
If our minds and bodies can be
still
for long enough
to hear the ordinary,
extraordinary,
blessings of incarnation.
Then,
may we run, like shepherds
like sheep
to hold the child
so that Mary can get some rest
knowing her baby is in good hands.

Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
a Savior.
One who will
heal the sick
house the homeless
nourish the hungry
release the prisoner
teach our children
care for our parents.

Glory to God in the highest!
For unto us is born this day
a Savior, a babe like any other:
God’s anointed,
God incarnate,
Love-made-flesh
given into our care.
Tiny fingers curling around ours
holding tight
calling us anew
so that there might
finally
be peace on earth.

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Luke 3:16-18

Recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber preached a marvelous sermon on anxiety and hope, in which she told the story of a young woman. This young woman was being bullied in school, as so many young people are, and wanted whatever advice she could get. Nadia’s response was classic, and so much what most kids who are being bullied need to hear:

“I looked directly into her eyes and said: “Look kid. I’m so sorry that’s happening and I totally get it because I’ve been there. But as horrible as it is right now…just do whatever you can to get through it because I promise you one thing: grown ups who were bullied in Middle School and survive it, are like, 10 times cooler and more interesting as adults than the ones who were doing the bullying. You get through this and you’re gonna be amazing. I promise you. Those kids will be nothing but a footnote later on. I mean, come on…who wants to peak in middle school?”

Certainly, the fortitude and courage that it takes to withstand bullying – especially the inescapable torture that comes not only at school, but through the social media we carry in our pockets – may well serve us in later years. It may be, as our parents once told us, “character building”- galling as it may be to acknowledge that our parents were right.

But it isn’t always.

Parents, educators, and concerned adults are often reminded that the children who bully are often the children who have been bullied. Those who have been disempowered find their power by disempowering others. The cycle continues, and spirals, and grows: bullies engender more bullies.

Sometimes, you don’t become ten times cooler. Sometimes, you become a total jerk.

John the Baptist, in the time before Jesus’ ministry began, gathered the people around him on the banks of the Jordan, and preached some pretty hardcore sermons. The Gospel of Luke records one such preaching moment, when John drew upon the prophecies of Isaiah for his scripture: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill laid low, he reminded the people. But what does that mean? It means that those who have wealth, or power, or privilege in this world shouldn’t keep it to themselves, but use it for the sake of others. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have authority, be aware of it and don’t let it consume you. Let it be used to build up the community, not for your own personal gain.

Don’t let any human measure of status convince you that you are more worthy, more beloved in the eyes of God.

Don’t use whatever power you have to disempower others.

Don’t be a bully.

Break the cycle.

With this and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.

The tax collectors, often forced by circumstances of poverty or desperation into positions from which they force their fellow Jews to follow the laws of the occupiers, are therefore shunned; and exact revenge in the form of extra fees levied on top of already harsh tax burdens. Disempowered by circumstance, they gain power at the expense of those who should be neighbors.

The bullied become bullies. But John proclaimed good news.

The desperate-to-feed-their-families become convinced by experience that no one else will help them, and so help themselves. But John proclaimed good news.

Those who receive no compassion give none, but keep their second coat as deserved, or for fear that when the first wears out, that experienced lack of compassion will leave them in the cold. But John proclaimed good news.

The good news that those who have had no coat will be cared for and warmed. The good news that those who have experienced extortion will know justice. The good news that is good to those who have been oppressed, to those who have been disempowered, to those who have been bullied: that much is clear.

But the good news is actually good for those who have done the bullying, as well.

The world is not divided easily – certainly, not as easily as we often try to divide it. The distinction between the one who bullies and the one who doesn’t – between the one who peaks in middle school and the one ten times cooler, between the mountain and the valley – isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be. The bullies have been bullied. The fearful seek to spread fear far and wide. Those who have power in some areas may be entirely out-of-control in others. As Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”* I suspect John would agree.

Where Isaiah’s imagery of mountains and valleys might allow us the ease of believing that the whole situation is out of our hands – we, who cannot easily bring low an entire mountain – John doesn’t let us off the hook. John makes it more personal. Where we might have been tempted to identify wholesale as either mountain or valley, and to see our position as natural, ordained by God, and therefore deserved, John changes the metaphor. John reminds us that we contain within ourselves both mountain and valley, both power and vulnerability. That around each of us – each grain of wheat for the harvest – is the tough outer layer that serves to protect us… and shield us from contact, one with another. The chaff that separates us one from another, as clearly as mountain from valley.

Yet we are both mountain and valley. We are both wheat and chaff. We are both bully and bullied.  Our internal topography is rough, and jagged… and only we can make it smooth. We can repent, literally, we can change our own hearts and minds. We can turn our hearts from the desire for power and status to the desire for compassion and justice. We can leave behind the protectiveness that separates us, we can embrace the vulnerability of community. We can set aside the desire to regain lost power at the expense of another, we can opt out of the cycle of bullying and violence. Our choices matter. Good news, indeed.

It is good news that we need take no more than what we truly need, without worry that there might not be enough. It is good news that we may give away the extra we have set aside for “just in case”, and know that we will be okay. It is good news that we can let go of some of the power and the status to which we so fearfully cling. It is good news that we can let go of the false idols of security and safety that keep us wrapped up in our chaff, clinging to the tops of our mountains. It is good news that when we let go of our fear and our protectiveness, when we leave behind the idea that we can keep ourselves safe, we prepare for God’s presence in our lives.

When we let go of the safety and protection that our skin tone, or our gender, or our economic status affords us, we prepare the way for God, who came into the world as a brown-skinned child of an teenaged, female prophet from a backwater, good-for-nothing town.

When we let go the security that relies upon demonizing an entire nationality, an entire race, an entire religion, we prepare the way for God, who loves all equally, and promised that all people should see God together.

When we let go the fear that tells us that the power of death is the ultimate power – when we let go the idolatry of protection through threats of violence and the dangerous brinksmanship of firepower – we prepare the way for God, victim of violence, who demonstrated that compassion overcomes fear and love overcomes death.

When we let go of the voices that tell us to hate and to fear, to seize power for ourselves before someone else can take it from us, to hoard for ourselves all that is good because we alone are worthy; when we let go of the cycle of bullying that turns us inward, safe within our chaff; when we remember that, in God and the Body of Christ, we have the fortitude and courage to survive even the bullies, then we do, indeed, become ten times cooler.

Because when we let go of everything that stands between us and love, we make room for God. We make space for the coming of the Christ Child. We open our hearts and our doors to the young couple, turned away from the Inn.

And that is the good news: that we can still choose compassion.  We can still choose love. We can still prepare the way for God. We can still make the rough places smooth. We can still give space to the Christ child.

That is the good news: that, for as long as we have chosen scarcity, and separation, and fear, we can still make another choice.

That, as much as we have participated in a culture of violence, it is not too late to go another way.

That is the good news: that God continues to call us – even us! – down from our mountains and up from our valleys.

That God continues to coax us out of the protective shells that we’ve built around ourselves, to shake us loose, as wheat from chaff; to refine us and purify us and open us to love.

That the bullies of this world, as numerous as they seem to be, and as much as their power would seem to dominate our lives and our media, will not have the final word. That the cycle of bullying and violence can end, and can end with us.

Prepare the way of our God. Turn your hearts to love, and open yourselves to the coming of the Christ Child.

Fear not, and believe the good news.

*Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956.  New York: HarperCollins. 2002

 

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” Luke 1: 46-48

wp-1450121790410.jpg

Russian Icon of Mary and the Christ Child

This seems rather an odd text for this third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Not because Mary doesn’t seem joyful in her hymn of praise to God, but because there seems no good reason for her to be joyful in the first place.  Certainly, she has found favor with God – Gabriel the Angel told her so, and who wouldn’t believe an angel, right? And certainly, she’s going to have a baby, which certainly can be good news under the right circumstances… but Mary’s don’t really feel right, by that measure, do they?

The reality is that Mary, whatever favor she may have found, is an unwed, teenage mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary, young, unmarried and pregnant, was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one.

Finding favor with God, though it sounds like a real treat, was no guarantee of comfort or security, as the scripture notes on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, God’s favor seems more likely to get one into trouble than just about anything else.

I discovered this week that Islam, in its telling of Jesus’ birth, goes into great detail about Mary’s life. The Qur’an traces Mary’s lineage back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and tells the story of her own parents: how, in order to maintain this lineage of prophets, they prayed for years to have a child – only to end up with a girl! Right from the beginning, it seems, the patriarchy was a part of poor Mary’s life. But so was prophecy, which she embodied beyond her parents’ expectations. But, like most prophets, Mary found that her gift – and the presence of God which it implied – would not make life any simpler for her. For Mary, as for the prophets of generations past, favor with God would be a hard road.  After all, prophecy – especially when it comes to calls to repentance, or to the question of bringing the people back to God, is almost never well-received.

Prophecy may not be the tradition in which we, as Christians, tend to place Mary, but this text certainly bears out that particular reading – as, indeed, does the entire Gospel narrative around the mother of Christ. For Mary puts herself, here especially, squarely into the midst of a reality that does not yet exist, and then calls others – like Elizabeth – into that reality alongside her. Mary chooses to live in a reality in which the humble are blessed and the mighty are brought low; in which the hungry are fed and the marginalized are lifted up.

Mary chooses to live in a reality in which an unwed teenager can give birth to God incarnate – and does so joyfully, even knowing what probably awaits her.

It is not at all absurd to hold Mary as a prophet. It is entirely within the Gospel tradition to hold her as a proto-disciple, embodying the call that her child would eventually put to all humanity. There is a good reason that Mary is held in veneration by so many, and it is not for her living into some unattainable level of feminine perfection and purity. Rather, Mary’s importance stems from an ability to believe fully in the covenant promises, even when they seem tremendously distant; her ability to live joyfully into a reality that isn’t, yet – that will only come into being in the person to whom she will give birth. Mary is able, beyond all reason, to live out the unimaginable reality of love and justice, even when she is faced with incredible hardship and trial, the likes of which most of us would never consciously choose.

But what if we did?

What would it look like for us, to live as Mary did: choosing joy?

Would we, like her cousin Elizabeth, follow her into this new reality of possibility? Elizabeth, after all, had everything – the social status, the location, the ancestry – to believe that she should have been the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Yet she sets all that aside to rejoice entirely at the presence of God in one who is, by all standard measures, a lesser person.

Could we, like Elizabeth, embody the joy that lifts another up? Even another who seems so terribly unworthy, in comparison?

What would it look like for us to imitate Elizabeth: to learn our discipleship at Mary’s feet? What would it look like for us to live into a discipleship that embodies the joy that can surpass even real, rational fear?

What would it look like for us to choose to rejoice at God’s movement and presence in this world, even when it comes at a very real cost to us? What would it look like to embody joy at a God who would appear in the least expected places, in the “least worthy” people, the God whose light shines in those places where we so often hesitate to tread?

What would it look like for us to live as Mary did, singing praises of the God who continually calls for the disruption of our comfortable lives, the God who calls us to prophecy and its consequences? What sort of discipleship would Mary teach us, but the one that she taught her son, to live for the sake of love and justice throughout the entirety of God’s creation?

Mary teaches us, throughout the generations, to believe fully in a God of prophetic discomfort – in the God who will be present with us as we live into the consequences of our prophetic voice.  For Mary knew, more intimately than we ever could, the presence of a God who walks with us through the difficulty and discomfort; the God who took on our weakness and our vulnerability so as to truly be Emmanuel: God with us.

Our call to discipleship may not put poetic hymns on our lips, or angels before us. Our prophecy may not cause unborn children to leap in the womb. But our God is present. God-with-us remains, disrupting, pushing, making life hard and uncofortable. For the same God who found favor with Mary calls us now, to live into the prophetic reality of hope, of peace, of joy and of justice. The same God calls us over and over to the power of weakness and vulnerability; as of a teenaged mother, as of her newborn child.

The same God who found favor with Mary invites us now, in the midst of discomfort, of prophecy, of impossibility, to choose joy over fear; to choose the reality of a God-with-us world; to embody the joy of God’s presence without counting the cost.

 

IMG_20151206_174637In the first days, when Creation was still new, there arose a series of majestic mountains, whose peaks seemed to caress the blue of the newborn sky.  The two greatest rose to dizzying heights, their lower slopes swathed in rich forests, their peaks brilliantly white. Long they stood, side by side, gazing out upon the world which seemed to stretch out forever below them, and murmuring contentedly one to another.

And they had reason indeed to be content, for the tiny creatures who lived below seemed forever in awe of the beauty and majesty of the mountains. Few creatures had the ability to ascend to the height of those highest peaks, and so the two great mountains stood alone, knowing themselves great among all creation, closest in all the world to God. Indeed, gazing upon one another and seeing beauty reflected back, it was hard not to believe themselves the most perfect denziens of Creation, the pinnacle of God’s handiwork, the very reflection of God’s majesty.

One day, the Northern mountain was idly watching an eagle soar and dip in great wheeling arcs, and found its gaze drawn downwards, into the valley that separated the Northern and the Southern mountain.  From that height, the mountain beheld a lovely view; a broad expanse of green meadow, dotted here and there with fields and orchards and vineyards. Winding brightly through it all, a slight silver ribbon; the river that formed from the streams and cataracts of the two great mountains.  Northern murmured contentedly to Southern, “See how pleasant that space between us is; green and fertile. It is the water from our peaks that makes it so, you know.”

Southern Mountain looked down as well, though the valley was far below them and it was hard to see much detail. Indeed, it was lovely, and the thought that the melting of its bright, snowy peak made that beauty possible… well, it just made Southern all the more proud of itself. Southern said as much to Northern, who agreed with the assessment. “Without us,” they agreed, “that valley would not be as rich, or as beautiful.  What a blessing that we are here!” And they settled back to gaze fondly upon one another, contented to be not only reflections of God, but participants in God’s work of creation and life.

So they passed many happy centuries together.  From time to time they gazed downwards to see what they could of the valley. For sometimes it was obscured by clouds for long stretches; other times, the shadows of the two mountains fell upon the valley and darkened it. The distant valley remained much as the two mountains had initially seen it; lovely and fertile. Sometimes the silver ribbon ran wide, sometimes it narrowed so that they could scarcely see it from their height. But distance blurred the details, and the two mountains could go long stretches without ever even remembering the land between them.

One day, Northern turned its mighty gaze upon its partner, and paused, quite confused. Southern, aware of the scrutiny, waited for the expected compliment; the recognition of divine presence in those wooded slopes, sheer rockfaces, and sparkling summit.  Yet Northern continued to gaze, saying nothing, until Southern quivered in some anxiety, shedding some rock into the distant depths. The far-away crash roused Northern from its reverie.

“Oh, pardon me, friend, I didn’t mean to stare.”

“What is wrong?”

“Oh… nothing.” Northern sparkled pink in the setting sun, obviously uncomfortable.  “I mean… I just noticed… it’s nothing, really… but… have you lost height?”

Southern, shocked, was still for a moment, and then roared in anger at the other mountain.  Snow blew furiously from its summit as it thundered, “How dare you even ask such a thing?! I, lose height?  As if God would allow any such thing? How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish!”  

So great was Southern’s anger and hurt that winds howled between the mountains throughout the night and well into the following day.  When, finally the winds calmed, the lower slopes of both mountains glittered with early frost, and clouds obscured the valley.  Northern tried to apologize, but Southern pretended not to hear, and the clouds persisted.

After some time, things seemed to return to normal between the two peaks.  Murmured compliments passed once again between majestic peaks.  Contented commentary on the soaring of the eagles, on the colors of the sunrise, on the twinkling river far below, became, again, the norm between the two old friends.  And so passed another aeon. But in the long silences that fell between them, they often stole glances, one at another.  For it really did seem, to both mountains, that perhaps they had lost some height, after all.  

Millenia passed before Northern gently broached the topic once again.  “It seems to me,” it said tentatively, “that the valley is not so distant as it once was.”

Southern, after considering for a moment, set aside its vanity and glanced downwards.  Northern had a point, after all; the fields and orchards and vineyards did seem somewhat… well, not closer, but more visible.  And that visibility did not please Southern, as it saw for the first time the houses, sheds, and roads that criss-crossed the formerly-pristine valley. “Hmph,” Southern sniffed.  “I don’t see that that’s a good thing.”

“No,” Northern agreed. “But I’ve noticed it, recently.  And it got me wondering; if it’s getting nearer, then, why, it must be getting higher.”

At this, Southern roared again in rage. “Higher!” it shrieked, sending a bit of itself sliding down. “As if! It will never be as high as we!” And once again, snow began to swirl, and clouds began to form.

“Come now, friend,” murmured Northern, soothingly, “Of course it shall never be like us.  We’re special; God made us so, you know. So there’s really no need to storm like that.  Besides,” it added, with a sideways glance at its counterpart, “if it were getting higher… well, it must be getting that height from somewhere, and I don’t see that getting so upset that we shed rocks and trees and dirt down there is really going to help matters.”

Southern, though still quite rageful, had to pause at this reasoning.  Although the clouds remained, the wind stilled and the snow fell back upon the peak.

“That is true,” it said slowly.

“We must be cautious,” Northern continued, with more confidence.  “That valley has gotten a little taste of height, and of our perfection and majesty.  I can’t really blame it for wanting more, but poor thing; it can never really be a mountain.  Not like we are.  So it would be unkind to encourage it, don’t you think?”

“Of course,” Southern murmured, its equanimity restored.  Calmly, both mountains watched the swirl of clouds below.  “We must be kind to the valley.  It cannot help that it is not like us, and I’m sure it cannot help wanting to be like us.”  

A long time later, Southern added, rather as an afterthought, “I wonder what it must be like, to be a poor little valley?”

Northern sighed happily. “Nothing so grand as being a mountain, I assure you.”

From then on, nothing seemed to change between the two mountains, but Northern felt, from time to time that perhaps they spoke less often than they had before. Northern wondered if, possibly, the compliments and reassurances that had flowed so smoothly between them – the recogition of God in those lofty peaks, in the brilliant perfection of their height – weren’t – maybe – just a little bit stale, as if the same words were being spoken without quite the intention that they had once contained.

These thoughts concerned Northern at first; then concern became worry, and worry became anxiety, and anxiety became preoccupation, until near-silence fell between the two mountains; a silence that was filled with the imagined dialogue that Northern’s fears created.  Until the day that Northern realized that the silence wasn’t complete.

“What did you say!?” Northern asked Southern, rather sharply; sharply enough to start a small avalanche.  In its annoyance at having given up more material to the valley, Northern very nearly didn’t hear it’s partner’s reply.

“I’m sorry,” Southern said softly, “I wasn’t speaking to you.”

“Who were you talking to, then?” Northern demanded, still irritated at the loss of rock and dirt.

There was a brief pause before Southern replied. “The valley,” it said, with the firmness of an impending argument.

Northern was taken aback.  “The valley!?” it barked in mirthless laughter.  “Why?!”

Southern was quiet for a moment, enough for Northern to sense that something was amiss. “The valley is nice,” it whispered finally.

“I’m sorry.” Northern tried to sound sincere; Southern was clearly uncomfortable.  “I’m sure the valley is lovely.”  It glanced downward, which – truth be told – it had mostly avoided since the conversation about losing height.  The clearer views of the valley weren’t nearly as pleasant to Northern as the more distant ones had been.

“It is lovely,” Southern replied eagerly, “more than I’d realized.”

Northern paused, rather taken aback by this enthusiasm.  It looked appraisingly at Southern; looked closely for the first time in the aeons that it had been absorbed in worry about their relationship.

“What happened to you,” Northern cried, just barely able to not let its surprise shake loose any snow or rock.  Southern’s snowy peak had all but disappeared; nothing more than an icy rime coated its summit. Upon further inspection, the streams that flowed down Southern’s slopes had broadened, and flowed with a distinctly muddy cast.

“Hmm?” Southern mumbled, “Oh, nothing.  Doesn’t the world look lovely this afternoon? The afternoon sun makes such long shadows…”

“Don’t change the subject!” Northern retorted, and despite its best efforts, the earth between them shook with the mountain’s fury. “I thought we’d agreed not to let the valley take our height!”

“It’s nothing, really,” Southern countered. “I just realized how much sunlight I’d been blocking.”

“You realized?” Northern grumbled.

“Oh, fine, the valley told me.”

“And you believed it? And you gave it some of your stone and earth?”

“Yes,” Southern cried, defiantly; but it trembled slightly.

“Mark my words, nothing good will come of this. You give a little, that valley will take a mile.” Dark clouds swirled around Northern, obscuring the peak.

“You would deny sunlight to the valley?” Southern retorted, defensive and hurt.

“God made the sun to shine on us.  If God had wanted the sun to shine on it, God would have made the valley a mountain, like us.  Would you go against what God wants?”

Southern was silent for a long moment.  Northern, feeling its point had been made, added smugly, “I’m sure you thought you were being kind, but you have to be careful. Start talking to valleys, and you could lose everything.”

Despite feeling the utter truth of its position, Northern could not help but notice Southern’s distance, after that conversation.  Nor could Northern mistake the sudden proximity of the valley floor, the softening of Southern’s once-sharp peak.  On the day that the last snows disappeared from Southern, leaving its summit rock-bare to the springtime sun, Northern berated its companion angrily, dismissing Southern’s remarks on the drought that had plagued the valley, the necessity of the snow-fed streams to the health of the valley river and everything that depended on it.  

“It’s become depedent on you,” Nothern remarked disdainfully. “I could have told you this would happen. Nothing you can give will ever be enough, you know. It’ll wear you down until you’re at its level, and then where will you be? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Yet Southern ignored its counterpart, and its streams poured forth with both water and the silt that would nourish the valley’s soil.  Northern’s warnings grew dire, then threatening, and then panicky – especially when Southern would let loose an earthquake that shook even Northern’s foundations.  

“Hey, now, stop that!” Northern screamed, as a tremor shook a sizeable chunk of its lower slopes free and sent it tumbling down towards the river..  “You can go slum if you must, but you can’t make me support that good for nothing lazy valley.  It’s not natural. We’re made to be mountains. It’s made to be a valley.  We’re not supposed to be alike. You can try to go against what God planned,  I’m going to live up to the perfection God intended for us!”

Southern didn’t respond.  

Northern waited a long moment, then tried a different tactic. “I bet you can’t see as high as you used to,” it said softly. Even in the silence, it knew it had Southern’s attention.  “I bet the world isn’t as beautiful from down there. Remember how much you loved watching the eagles circle below your peak?  Remember the beauty of a snowy peak against the clear blue sky?  Do the people still come and stand in awe, now that you’re so short?”

In the quiet that followed, Northern felt sure it had won its point.

Then a new voice spoke. “Do you hear the breeze in the branches of the trees? Can you make such music, with your snow and rock? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, tall one.”

Southern chuckled at the new voice’s comment.  Northern was shocked into stillness, until it realized that it had been the valley who spoke. “How dare you speak to me!” it thundered. “You would not be what you are without me!”

“Possibly,” the valley allowed. “Although whether that is a good thing or not, is also a matter of perspective.  Without you, I might have been a meadow, or a plain, or a grassland.  But I would still be, just as God made me.”

“HA!” Northern laughed, but Southern cut in.

“Stop, stop. Northern, stop. Can’t you see we’re connected?  Can’t you see we’re in this together? Our being depends on the valley, and it depends on us. We’re not enemies, but equal parts of God’s creation.”

“Equal, ha.” Northern snorted. “I can’t believe you’d betray me like this, Southern.”

“I’m sorry you feel betrayed,” Southern replied calmly. “But I cannot, in good conscience, continue to value certain parts of creation more than others.”

“God did!”

“No. God didn’t. We did. But we were wrong.”

Northern was so horrified, so infuriated by this reply, that it could say nothing else. But as months became years, and years became centuries,, it continued to hear the conversation between Southern and the valley. Mostly, these two spoke softly, so that Northern could only hear if it cared to listen carefully – which it didn’t.  Indeed, Northern was so intent upon not listening to the dialogue between valley and mountain – dialogue which was sometimes painful to hear, when the valley spoke of the winter darkness made worse by mountain shadows, or of the fierce snowstorms that had seemed so playful and beautiful to the mountains at the time… When Northern heard Southern’s quiet apologies, it became disdainful, and brewed up out-of-season storms as a demonstration of its power, of its might, of its God-likeness.  But Southern sheltered the valley as best it was able, and acknowledged the pain that the storms brought, until Northern felt embarrassed, and ashamed, and angry at its outbursts. Yet when it overheard again the quiet conversations between valley and mountain, it resolved, in its shame and anger, all the more to win the day.

Still, in all its planning and scheming, Northern could not fail to notice how low a hill Southern had become.  Nor, indeed, could it miss that its own snowpack had dwindled; that try as it might, little bits of mountain were flowing down the streams of which it had once been so proud; the streams which flowed into the now-nearby valley river. So focused had Northern become on the argument it had with Southern that it had scarcely noticed its own decline; but now it looked around and saw that the Creation upon which it had looked down from such lofty height was not so far below; indeed, the birds now circled well above its bare summit.  

“This is your fault,” Northern spat bitterly at Southern.  “Your melting for those who were below us.  You’ve brought us all down.” But Southern didn’t seem even to hear, too engrossed in converation with the valley.  

Yet there were gaps in that conversation as well, Northern realized; gaps when it seemed that both Southern and the valley were listening to another voice; one that Northern could never quite hear.  Northern barely spoke to Southern by this point, but its curiousity finally grew until at last, one day, when it was sure the valley wouldn’t be able to hear, Northern asked Southern about the other voice.

Southern was surprised. “Can’t you hear it?”

The valley, who had, in fact, been listening, sighed. “No, Northern cannot hear it. To hear that voice requires that we hear more than just our own voices, more than just our own stories.”

Southern considered these words. “Of course,” it replied. “Which is why I didn’t hear it for so long – it wasn’t until you and I started talking, Valley.”

“It wasn’t until you started hearing me, Southern,” Valley corrected gently. “It wasn’t until you were able to hear my story, without defensiveness. It wasn’t until you stopped trying to tell me how I’d experienced my own tale; it wasn’t until you were willing to hear me, in your heart, even when it made you uncomfortable. It wasn’t until you stopped being afraid, and started being willing to change because of what you heard me say.”

Northern harrumphed. “I’m not afraid,” it said grandly.

“Lift me up,” suggested the Valley.

“You’re changing the subject,” Northern countered, quickly. “I still don’t see why Southern can hear this other voice, and I can’t.”

“Southern and I depend upon one another.  We share a common root, acknowledge a common ground. We give to each other. We recognize God in each other.”

“You’re alike enough, now, to see that, I suppose,” Northern grumbled.

“God isn’t just present in sameness,” Southern murmured, “God isn’t just present in the parts of me that I see in the Valley; but in the many ways we are different. I see God more clearly when I remember that God isn’t just a mountain, but is both mountain and valley, hill and plain – more than the sum of all of us.”

“And when you know that; when you can give of yourself for the God who is present in difference,” the Valley continued, “then you leave room for the voice of God to enter into the conversation.”

Northern was stunned. God? The voice that Northern couldn’t hear? How could that be? How could the pinnacle of Creation, the most powerful and majestic part of all Earth, be unable to hear the voice of its Creator?

Southern seemed to hear the unspoken question. “When being great and mighty is what matters to you, you hear the voice of power. We spoke it for years, you and I, and mistook it for God. We mistook ourselves for God. But when you hear the voices of those whom our power has hurt; when you hear beyond yourself, with all your heart… then God will be made known.”

The Valley gazed upon Northern, who realized for the first time that it wasn’t totally clear where the moutain ended and the valley began.  Tentatively, Northern let a few rocks tumble down.

“How could the reflection of God change, let alone diminish?” Northern asked, plaintively. “We were the image of God, once, Southern…”


“We were an image of God, one among many. One image of one aspect of God. Our mistake was in thinking we were the only image, and therfore believing ourselves to be gods.”“I’m afraid I won’t know who I am, once I’m not a mountain,” it whispered.

“I know,” Southern whispered back. “But it’ll be okay. We’re all still learning. And perhaps, really, it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps what matters isn’t who we are, but whose we are. As long as we know that, I think we’ll be fine.”

And now a new voice spoke, so low Northern had to strain to catch it. The voice came from everywhere at once, even, it seemed, from within Northern’s rocky core:
“Prepare God’s way, remove the obstacles. The valleys shall be lifted, the moutains made low, and all Creation shall see God together.”

Anyone who knows me, knows I love Paris. It’s one of those rare places in the world where I have felt entirely at home.

But I can’t update my profile picture with the blue, white and red overlay.

Because although I grieve deeply the attacks of the past 24 hours in that place I love so much, I grieve as well the equally deadly attacks that didn’t garner outrage on social media. Just one day earlier, dozens died in Lebanon and Iraq. Where are those overlays?

image

Some people are using the Paris attacks as a means to condemn student uprisings that are calling out racism in the US. I don’t see any of those same people grieving the deaths of brown people. I don’t see profile pictures changing to reflect deaths of any but those who look like us.

Do All Lives Matter?

Of course.

But here again, let us raise up those lives that are not valued,  those deaths that are not grieved. Let us remember that black lives matter. That brown lives matter. That Muslim lives matter.

Let us remember that if all those lives had truly mattered to us this whole time,  the refugee crisis might not have reached such proportions. That we might be receiving refugees with more compassion for what they had been through.  That those who are fleeing for their lives might not have been turned away at every border, made to live in squalid camps without adequate food or sanitation or healthcare.

I grieve the lives lost in France. But I grieve equally all lives lost to fear and violence – in the Middle East, in Europe, in South America, in the United States. And I lift up in particular those whose deaths, like their lives, seem not to affect us.  I lift up those who seem to matter less.

And I will continue to do so – clearly and loudly,  following the call of my faith to love all my neighbors – until all deaths are grieved,  all violence evokes outrage, and all lives really do matter.

When all you have has been taken
     stripped away
     eaten – devoured!
When you come face to face
     with the end
Two choices remain:
To consent to the violation
     silent acquiescence
     to one’s own powerlessness;
Or to stand, invisible before the aggressor
     and give before it can be taken
     keeping that which still remains.
Did you think to rid yourself entirely
     of responsibility? Obligation?
Which has more honor:
     graceful garments and beautiful words?
     or silent promises kept, unseen?
You shall not devour me.
I do not choose
    the glory of mortals.
    No edifice can contain
         the God within.
I give, by my own will, and so reclaim
     Myself: loving, compassionate
     generous, dignified.
My giving, my choice coerces you
     (although without the violation
     you would have imposed)
To do what your piety refused.
My two coins, given freely,
     mean you cannot devour me
     but must care beyond your empty words.
My two coins, given freely, devour
     your finery, your status, your honor
     this feat of engineering in which you would
          hide God
I give. I choose! Not out of my poverty,
     but out of my abundance.
And my abundance devours you:
     the poverty you seek to clothe
     in sumptuous lyricism.

Once upon a time, there lived a weaver who was known throughout the land for the beauty of her creations. No craftsperson could spin a finer, smoother thread.  None could recreate the brilliance of her dyes – the perfect, saturated colors of her palette.  No weaving ever seen carried the complexity, the intricacy, of the patterns the old weaver could invent. The cloth that emerged from her loom was prized beyond measure.

Stories about the old weaver abounded. It was told that her loom and shuttle were enchanted – magical devices that could work as no human hands ever could.  It was whispered that her spinning wheel could extract thread from the morning dew.  It was agreed that gray, cloudy days were the days when she prepared new dyes: when the sky gave her its clear blue, the maple trees their fiery orange, the hummingbird its brilliant green.

The house where the weaver toiled perched precariously above a river valley, clinging by some unknown means to the side of a steep hill. For the possibility of watching the weaver at work, of discovering some of the secrets she brought to her craft, people would travel for miles, even braving the dangers of the final climb. Scarcely a day went by when she did not have dozens gathered around her little cottage. However many gathered, she would welcome them with patient hospitality, giving them water to wash and drink, some little biscuits to fill their bellies.  Then she would tuck herself up to begin the work of her day: the spinning, the dyeing, the weaving that so occupied her, and that brought her guests such joy. Yet, however attentively they watched, they could not quite keep up with the swift, sure movements of her hands, and her secrets remained her own.  Those who had come to plumb her knowledge would wander back out, slightly dazed, the loom’s patterns still dancing before their eyes. On the hillside, they would pause, blinking in the brightness of the day, to gaze down upon the distant valley; perhaps it was the sudden brightness, perhaps the hum of the spinning wheel or the speed of the shuttle still confusing their thoughts, but the landscape of the valley seemed to shift beneath one’s gaze – fickle, uncertain. No matter how clear the air around them, the valley seemed hazy, and those who came to the old weaver’s home would leave, arguing over what they saw spread out before them.

Many times, the old weaver had been offered a small fortune in exchange for one of her creations.  Each time, she would gaze steadily into the eyes of the one who sought to put cash into her hand; she would stare until finally, the would-be purchaser fell silent and turned away. Yet late at night, she would take the cloth she had woven and slip down into the towns of the valley.  Making as little noise as the night itself she would wrap her weavings like blankets – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace – around the poor, the blind, the despairing, the hungry.  Before dawn she would return to her hillside, her arms empty but her heart full, to begin again her work.

One morning, a young man came to her cottage, as she sat weaving in the midst of the crowd. He was beautiful: strong and graceful, solemn and joyful. His clothes were simple, but new and of good quality. In his fitted, well-made boots the steep path had given him no trouble, and he was scarcely out of breath as he approached the loom and dropped to one knee before the weaver. His eyes were full of respect and admiration as he gazed at her, heedless of the many others who crowded the room. “Master Weaver, your work is known to me, and I honor your skill. I would love nothing more than to have one of your weavings. If you will not take money, what must I do to get what I desire?”

The old weaver looked affectionately down at the young gentleman, reached out a strong, weathered hand and touched his cheek. “Not the Master Weaver, no, not I,” she replied. “But as to having some of this cloth? Certainly I can weave for you. Where is the wool you have brought?”

The young man’s face fell, and he gasped as though she had struck him. “I have none, Madam.”

“Flax? Cotton? Silk?” she inquired gently.

“No.” His eyes welling with tears, he began to stand up.

“My son, all is not lost.” The old weaver stopped him and took his hand. “Go out and find what I have requested of you. It will not come cheap, so be prepared: you will find what you seek on the far side of the valley, as the hills begin to rise again.  There you will find a pasture whose gate will be open, yet from which the sheep will not wander. There you will find wool in abundance, to bring back to me.”

Although the old weaver’s words were kind, the young man left her cottage with a heavy heart. Outside her door, the day was well advanced, and the valley glowed in the afternoon sun; but the distant hills seemed dark, wreathed in mist that blurred their shapes. 

By next morning, the young man had taken everything of value from within his house, and packed it carefully into a stout cart. At the front, he hitched his ox, and then climbed up onto the seat and began his journey across the valley.  The rising sun nearly blinded him, and he took that as reason to glance continually behind him, into the area where his possessions lay, carefully packed so as not to break and become useless. The glass sparkled, the silver shone, the occasional jewel winked merrily at him and he smiled, glad of the wealth that would finally serve some purpose. 

About mid-morning, he entered a large village.  Towards the far end, he could see a large crowd gathered; he halted his cart, tied the ox to a post, and made his way towards the group.  They had gathered, it seemed, around a modest house; as he approached, the young man could smell smoke. He tapped the shoulder of the nearest person, an old woman, and asked what had happened.

“House caught fire early this morning,” the woman replied. “Managed to save most of it, but parts of the kitchen and the bedroom above were lost.” She turned away, to look at the house sadly. “Young family, they didn’t have much. We’ll all have to pitch in to help out.”

The young man slipped through the crowd to where they family stood, encircled by their neighbors. They were young, younger than he, with a little baby huddled, quiet and frightened, in his father’s arms. “All our dishes were in that corner,” he could hear the father saying. “Pot and pan, plate and cup, all gone. It wasn’t much then, but it’s nothing at all, now.”

The young man paused, looking more closely at the little family. Their clothes were neat, but showed wear and careful mending. The blanket round the child was frayed at the edges, but still warm. Suddenly very aware of his own nice clothes and full cart, the young man turned and made his way back. From among his possessions, he pulled copper pots and ceramic plates, and started back towards the crowd. But as he hopped down from the cart, a slight twinkle caught his eye: a set of heavy, cut-crystal glasses, purchased years earlier in a far-off land.  He hesitated – he might need those, they were valuable, after all, and he didn’t know how much the wool would cost! And besides, it would be a foolish gift to give a couple with a little baby – such breakable things! He hurried off with the pots and plates, and presented them to the family.  Even in their shock, they were effusive in their thanks, but the young man ducked away as soon as he could, still thinking of those glasses, and slightly ashamed.  Such thanks for such little things, he thought to himself as he untied his ox and jumped back up onto the seat.  But the cart had no sooner moved than a great crash sounded behind him; he reined up and turned to see the box of glasses lying in the road behind him, smashed.

Mortified, he jumped down, swept the shards hurriedly back into the box, and left it by the side of the road.  His heart ached anew, and he wished that he had simply given the glasses to the family, for all the use that they would be to him now.

The young man continued across the wide valley.  For several days it rained, and he wrapped himself up as well as he could against the damp and chill.  Finally, one morning, the sun appeared over the distant hills, and mist rose from the fields around. Slowly, the young man’s clothes dried and the warmth began to cheer him.  He glanced back into the cart, still delighting in the treasure packed so carefully away, and the greater treasure that his things would grant him.  In his gladness at the warmth of the sun and the riches of his cart, he began to sing, and was soon so caught up in the song that the sudden halt of his ox startled him badly.

They had come to the river. Not the quiet, smooth, silver ribbon he had seen from the old weavers cottage, but a torrent of mud and branches, swollen and angry with the recent rain.  A cluster of houses stood to one side, their silent inhabitants staring, grief-stricken, at the river. On the far shore, he could make out another cluster of houses, another group of silent watchers; between them, three stone pillars peeked out of the floodwaters.

The young man jumped down from his cart and moved to join the quiet crowd.  “The bridge washed away?” he asked an old man who stood nearby.

“Yes, and our livelihood with it,” the man replied. “All that we had depended on the river and the bridge, and those who came to our villages from both sides of the valley to trade. Our marketplaces were famous; here we united the two sides of the valley.  But without the bridge..” His voice trailed off, and he stared again at the wild river. 

“I’m sure you can rebuild it,” the young man replied, clapping his hand on the other’s shoulder. 

“We found some of the timbers,” the other responded, “But not all. And where shall we get more? Down here, trees are scarce; what we do have, we need for shade for our animals.”

The young man looked around and recognized the truth of these words. He, too, stared hopelessly at the flooded river. He would have to go many miles downstream to find another place to cross, and the plight of these villages touched him. 

After a long, silent time, the villagers began to return to their homes.  The old man invited the young one for supper and a place to rest, and led him to a tiny cottage at the edge of the cluster.  There was not much to eat, but the old man shared what there was, and made a place for the young man to sleep before the fire.

The next morning, the young man rose early and went to hitch his ox to his cart, to continue his journey downriver.  The river level had begun to fall, and the villagers were salvaging what timbers they could, and bringing them back to the road.  The old man, on his way to help his neighbors, smiled sadly at his guest. “Perhaps, when you come back, we’ll have found enough wood to complete the bridge,” he said.

The young man paused, his hand on the cart. There was wood – quite a lot of it, really, in the form of the large, ox-drawn cart.  He hesitated.  He needed the cart to bring his things, the possessions he would need in order to get the wool for the old weaver.  Yet the crash of the crystal glasses rang again in his ears.  Perhaps… if he packed his things just so… Carefully, he took out everything in the cart – porcelain, silver, mother-of-pearl – and repacked it into bundles which could be laid across the ox’s back.  Then he brought the cart down to where the villagers were working.

The young man stayed several days with the old man.  Everyone in the two villages worked, with the old wood and the carefully-dismantled cart, to construct the rudiments of a new bridge.  More wood would be required, but the structure was stable enough that the man and his ox, carrying all his possessions, were able to pass over and be on their way. 

The young man could not regret the loss of his cart, when it had meant he could help the villagers.  But he noticed the weight on his ox’s back; the sacks that were not meant for such use cut into the animal’s shoulders.  He took some of the burden himself, but still the raw spots appeared on the ox.  In every village, the young man found need aplenty; and tried to lighten the load that his animal bore.  In each village, the young man left one or more of his treasures.  Sometimes, he would see one of the old woman’s weavings; there, he would leave the most valuable objects, in the hopes of giving the villagers the means to buy the food or medicines they so clearly needed. Even the ox, in the end, was given to a farmer who was trying to plow his fields by hand. And the young man went on, empty-handed, with nothing but the clothes on his back.  These, too, he might have given away, had they not been, by this time, so worn as to be almost worthless.

Finally, one day, the road began to climb up out of the valley.  Hills rose around the young man, so close that they blocked the sun until mid-morning.  After several hours, a curve in the road brought the sight of a large, fenced-in pasture, where a flock of sheep grazed quietly.  And what sheep! Beautiful, almost glowing in the afternoon light, with soft fleece so thick it looked like you could sink your arm in to the elbow.  The young man stood, transfixed, in awe at the beauty of the enclosure: velvety green grass underfoot, perfectly pruned fruit trees, their branches laden, bowing over the back wall, and the sheep – straight out of a children’s storybook.  He stepped forward, as though in a dream… and stumbled, falling headfirst into a perfectly clear stream that burbled and sang its way to a little pond, not far from the gate.  The water flowed around him, smooth as crystal, and he bowed his head and wept for the broken glasses that he had been too selfish to give away. 

“Why are you crying?” A child stood over him, staring curiously.

“Because I kept the glasses for myself, and they broke, and it doesn’t matter now anyway because I have nothing.” The young man’s bitter tears ran down his face into the stream.  He knew his words could make no sense to the child, but it didn’t seem to matter.

“It’s okay.  I have a cup.  Take a drink, the water is good.” Out of nowhere, it seemed, the child produced a little wooden cup and dipped it into the water.  Obediently, the man drank; the water, though cold, warmed him through as nothing had ever done. He stood, and handed the cup back. 

“I’m here to see about getting some wool,” he began, uncertain.

The child nodded.  “There are shears on the hook in the wall, there. Take as much as you need.”
The man paused. “As much as I need? Do you have no need of the wool, yourself? I don’t want to take this, and leave you wanting.”

The child laughed.  “We do use it for our own garments, yes.  But when there is need, there is enough.  There is always enough.”

The young man looked up, and for the first time noticed that the child was just one of many, running around in the pasture, playing among the sheep and eating the fruit.  The one who had given him the cup now took his hand, and pulled him towards the shears.  “Wait,” the young man said, “I have nothing to pay you.”

The child laughed again, a joyful, contagious laugh. “What it costs you, it has cost you already.” And without another word, the child helped the young man to shear several nearby sheep.  Soon, he had as much wool as he thought he could carry, although it seemed that he had barely sheared any of the animals who were grazing nearby.  He thanked the child, who laughed again and ran off to play.  Bundling up the wool, he turned slowly and started back up the long road to the old weaver. 
***
One morning, just as the first glimmers of dawn lit the distant hills, the old weaver started up the path to her cottage.  Her arms were empty, but her heart was full, and she was ready for another day at her loom.  But standing before her cottage was a young man, weary and stooped, tired and confused.  The old woman ushered him inside and sat him before the fire, gving him milk to drink and bread and honey to eat. 

“I’m sorry,” he said, finally.  “I thought I was returning to my house, but I seem to have lost my way. I ended up here, instead.” He buried his face in his hands. “I lost all that I had.  Even the wool… the birds, you see.  And the squirrels, and the chipmunks.  They needed it to keep their nests warm…”

Gentle fingers touched his cheek, and then a warm blanket was wrapped around his shoulders – light as air, soft as silk, warm as a loving embrace.  Slowly he raised his head, to see the most beautiful weaving he’d ever imagined. Intricate patterns meandered throughout, creating shapes that seemed almost to move in the first rays of the sun; birds in their nests, a flock of sheep grazing near laden fruit trees, and ox with a plow, glints of silver and mother-of-pearl by outstreched hands, a swirling river carrying away a cart. Towards the bottom, the young man glimpsed the sparkles of broken crystal, and tears again filled his eyes.

“Those,” said a voice, “we put among the tiles of our hearth, so that we might never forget to welcome the stranger.”

The young man looked up, suddenly, into the face of the young father whose house had burnt, and who now gazed at him, smiling. “See? Right here.” And so indeed they were, shards and fragments of crystal, glittering and winking back at him in the light of the fire.  The young man started, and stared around him.  He had thought himself alone with the old weaver in her tiny, precarious cottage. But as he looked, he became aware of noises from other rooms he’d not seen before, voices familiar to him – the young family, villagers from near the bridge, from villages where he had given what he could to meet the neverending need.  From beside the window, a bird sang; its nest lined in the softest wool imaginable. 

The young man turned to the old weaver. He touched the blanket lightly and murmured,  “But, I didn’t bring back any wool…”

She smiled.  “That which keeps you warm is of your own spinning, and the pattern is of your own choosing.  Now come, my son, you need to rest.  For you did not lose your way, but are home now, with your family around you.”

She led him into a small chamber, where a soft bed awaited him. From it, he had a beautiful view of the hazy valley below.  But now the haze had lifted, and the colors of the valley glowed brightly before him, each village clear and sharp. In the distance, sheep grazed; bright against the soft green of their pasture.  The man closed his eyes and pulled the weaving close around him, feeling its softness through the many holes in his once-fine shirt.  And he fell asleep, the richest man in the world.

Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For God all things are possible.”

*Inspired by “The Quiltmaker’s Gift” by Jeff Brombaugh and “The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander

Sometimes, God sneaks up on us.

Certainly, we expect to hear God speaking here, where we gather.

We come for just that purpose: to listen, to worship,

and sometimes it is enough.

But sometimes we get hungry;

listening attentively is hard work!

And sometimes the word doesn’t quite cut it,

doesn’t give us enough to chew on,

doesn’t fill the gnawing, empty place within,

but only makes us more aware of feeling

hollow.

It is tempting to sneak off,

to rush away from the speaking,

to answer a different call than the one that brought us here.

We plot our escape, absently

massaging our empty bellies,

not noticing, at first,

the basket:

for the taking, not the giving.

The basket, from which we pull, grab,

gorge, devour;

we fall back, sated, filled, overfilled,

and, finally, aware:

uncomfortably aware of the hungers of others.

Watch, you who gather here,

as all are filled by the God who slipped in;

in Word, yes,

but in the word that spoke the simple word: eat.

And we are joined in satisfied hunger,

feeling together the relief from emptiness,

pulled from ourselves into a greater Body

in the experience of abundance

in the experience of grace.

One Body, taken within our own.

One Body consumed, incorporated,

giving life and sustaining us,

God incarnate abiding, within us and through us,

the Word made our flesh,

devoured, renewed, eternal, enough,

surprising us in bread, in flesh,

in Word, in Body,

in life.

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