Breaking In, Making Way

Isaiah 40:1-11 | 2 Peter 3:8-15a | Mark 1:1-8 | Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

There’s part of me that wants a rally cry from the church to come down from above, stop us in our tracks, and realign everything so that we’re all fixed in God’s will. So when I hear the words of Isaiah to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” I get excited. Yes! This is it. Finally, “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” We’ll get the level playing field for equality and justice to be manifest so the Glory of God can be revealed, for all to see it together. That’s the beloved community I long for. And the Gospel of Mark repeats this, basically. Only, it’s not so much a rally cry as it is an introduction . . . for John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, humble and unworthy, yet baptizing many.

This is why we can’t solely proof-text the Bible, why we can’t just pick and choose verses of Scripture to hold onto. Well, we can certainly hold onto verses of Scripture for the strength and assurance we need; I have one stuck to my laptop screen (Jn 15:11). But we also need to know the context of the greater picture.

As much as I want Isaiah to be a rally cry for social justice–and it very well can be–it’s also part of an image of the way the world is when God’s will is manifest. The Israelites have suffered under oppression and are at that time returning to their land, something they didn’t think could or would happen. What’s happening is that what they least expected is actually happening, what they don’t deserve is being granted because God is faithful in God’s covenant with them. Their journey this time won’t be forty years’ wandering in the wilderness, but the path will be straight for them. In that moment, this is an observation of the mercy of God, even as we also get a picture of the fickleness of the people with whom God is in relationship and know their struggles are not over.

We get an even richer image of God’s manifestation in Psalm 85. God is speaking peace (shalom) to the faithful: peace, the fruit of forgiveness. What does it look like? Like mercy and truth meeting together, like righteousness and peace kissing each other, like truth springing up from the earth and righteousness looking down from heaven, like abundance for all and peace as the pathway. Just thinking this fills my imagination and heart with goodness, but it’s highly conceptual. I read a story about a group who created a physical “Road to Shalom” so youth groups could actually walk a way of peace. They had signs that said “Steadfast Love,” “Faithfulness,” “Righteousness,” and “Peace.” Using Ps. 85, vs. 10, they had youth hold the signs and act out the verse. Steadfast Love and Faithfulness met one another (our “Mercy” and “Truth” in the NRSV translation; NIV has “love” and “faithfulness”), and Righteousness and Peace exchanged a kiss (among much giggling). This was a very physical, tangible experience, a way to embody the path of peace so that our finite minds can try to fathom the greatness of God’s glory.

Whereas the Word of God does stand forever, we are more like the grass and flowers that wither and fade. Our Epistle reading reminds us that with God “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” We know with God there’s that timelessness and all time, the kairos time I’ve referred to before. With that perspective of all time, I cannot even imagine the kind of enduring patience that waits for us to turn our hearts toward the way of peace. That kind of steadfast love that waits for us to acknowledge the truth of our condition of suffering. That kind of goodness that accepts us wholly and unconditionally.

I want a rally cry, and I’m offered a way of Peace. I’m reminded of the patience of God who is waiting on me, when I think I’m waiting on God.

I’m waiting for God to intervene in the Middle East crisis and the poverty crisis and the refugee crisis and every single one of our life crises. And I think surely this Christmas we’ll remember that Christ has come and been made manifest and that we have all the power of the Holy Spirit to make all things new, . . . but I’m told to wait. To be still. To listen. To be alert and awake. And to heed the messengers who have gone before me. And to repent for my sins. So that I can be ready to meet Christ at his Birth and at his Second Coming. That’s a lot to do for one “just” waiting.

I want a rally cry to make the world a better place, and I’m so outwardly focused that I miss that God is waiting on me. And on you.

Wait. Be still. Prepare yourself. Listen. A rally cry will come…has already come…and broken into our world. God has prepared a way of peace, determined a pathway long ago. Who’s to say it’s not already written on our hearts? We might stumble upon the path of peace, but what happens when we prepare ourselves for it? What happens if we help reveal it to others?

What does it mean for us to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God”? Would it be like parting the Red Sea or the Jordan River? Or making way through the crowds clamoring for healing or throwing down palm fronds on the way into Jerusalem? Is it really the people doing the “making way”? Or are the people the ones noticing enough to direct attention at what is breaking into the world, right into the midst of all the messiness and struggle, settling into our heart and spreading to our minds and lives.

And this in-breaking presence of God speaks peace to the faithful, to those who have their hearts turned toward God.

So we don’t have to go to someplace that tells us it’s trying to create a visual of the path of peace. We live it. Frederick Buechner said, “The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it.” People the world over don’t have to wonder what it’s like to live outside of God’s love because God’s love already broke into our world and prepared for us the Way to salvation. But we forget that we’re in this eternal covenant of God’s steadfast love and grace and mercy. And we have to be reminded that when we greet one another with peace, whether we’re in church or in our cars or on the phone or in the restaurant or the grocery store, we are walking along the path of peace, one that was and is and yet will be.

Steadfast love/mercy and faithfulness/truth meet not just like teenagers on a youth trip, shaking hands and exchanging names. Mercy and truth meeting looks like legislators listening to the constituents showing up at their offices in D.C., outlining the affect health care has on their lives, how grateful they’ve been for the dialysis they’ve received or for every effort made by the medical team to heal the child and provide a refuge for the parents as they watched their child die. In this coming together of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace kiss, coming together in a communion of intimacy and love that bears fruit of something good for all, in legislation that benefits the most, especially the least recognized, the most invisible.

I want a rally cry, and I’m invited to be still. Be alert. Notice the pathway of peace that signals where the feet of God have trod–to the altar, to the food bank doors, to the waiting rooms of health centers, to the kitchen table, to the artist’s canvas, to the inventor’s studio, the programmer’s desk, to the child’s imagination, and to the student’s mind–to everywhere Holy Spirit gives us a taste of the grace and mercy, righteousness and peace that creates what is Good for each of us and all of us. In our haste, chances are we’ve paved over the holy with our good intentions and self-interest, creating a different kind of highway that helps us navigate the mountains and valleys without thinking too much about it. And we have the soundtrack of our lives playing so loudly that there’s no way we’ll hear the voice of a weird-looking guy in the wilderness or even a still, small voice within, nudging us to stop a minute and notice the glimmer of light out of the corner of our eye.

There’s a way that’s been prepared for us. There’s a light that’s broken in in the most unlikely of ways. God’s waiting for us to notice and follow the path.

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When We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

I received an e-mail that reminded me today marks the anniversary of when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  The nuclear weapon was named “Little Boy.”  The one that was dropped on Nagasaki three days later was called “Fat Man.” (for more on the events of those days, you can visit Wikipedia.

In sixty-three years, am I correct in believing that weapons such as these have not been used?  But the potential of them is weighty, ever-present.  The intent for using them hasn’t gone away, either — power, domination, intimidation, destruction.  These are decidedly masculine attributes.  Is it mere irony that the names of the bombs are masculine, too?

We all have infinite potentiality within.  We have our feminine and masculine attributes.  We have our strengths and weaknesses, our superiorities and inferiorities, that which we build and that which we destroy within each of our feminine and masculine selves.  It is our responsibility to hold these in balance, yes?

That’s why we need each other, our community, to help one another find our balance, share our insights, give us another perspective.   Alone we can convince ourselves that we mean well, that our intent is good and true, our course of action the only way.  But our ego is strongest when given an attentive audience, the slope slippery once we yield to it.  And any one person in power is just as susceptible as the rest of us.

That’s why in America we’re supposed to have the system of checks and balances.  That’s why in families it can work best where there are two raising the children.  Left to our own devices, we can do some incredibly regrettable, irreversible things — when we are out of balance, out of sync.

For our own sake and for the sake of others, may we know peace, the true peace that resides within, lest we be our own worst enemy.

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Standing for Peace When All Hell’s Broken Loose

The streets are filled with crime, the prisons overcrowded, the drugs too available and the bombs too frequent.  The wails and moans get closer, the burdens too heavy.

The laundry is more dirty than clean, the dishes crowd the counter and hide the sink.  A mass of papers and unopened mail cover the desk.  The kids are sick and the checking account overdrawn.  The refrigerator is bare, and the price of gas just went up again, just in time for the van to need a refill.

Both scenarios are very real, and I venture to say that both are images of hell.  What is hell but an everpresent suffering, seemingly inescapable?  Yet hell can be overcome with a heaping dose of peace grounded in love — or perhaps it is love grounded in peace.  Undoubtedly the two are so intertwined it matters little.  Before the moans become our own and our vision clouded by the fog of negativity, we have to utter words of love, evoke a sense of peace and see the Light present in all.

How many times has great suffering brought about great realizations, great triumphs and understandings?  If you cannot find one example, perhaps you haven’t thought long enough or listened closely enough.  Perhaps you just missed it altogether.  Not to worry.  Just brace yourself since it will come again.

I do not mean to over-simplify.  There is a suffering in the world that I have not and probably cannot fathom.  The genocide in Darfur, the plight of refugees, the millions of homeless and hungry.  I do believe in the power of the collective, though.  One positive thought attracts more, light attracts light, and if we all were to focus and/or pray on peace and contentment, wouldn’t the world be different?

Quite obviously, we all have difficult lessons to learn, obstacles to overcome.  We haven’t learned how to love one another with our whole heart.  Whether at the market or in the home, in our hometown or in a different country, we have to be able to stand for and in peace if we are to improve ourselves, our kids and our humanity.  This is hard; at least, it is when you’re not used to it.  It’s like how they say to frown takes more muscles than to smile.  Really, it takes less energy to love someone than it does to harbor animosity, anger or fear towards them.

It helps to have support, to surround yourselves with others in a unified effort.  It isn’t a bad thing to stand for peace when it seems all hell has broken loose.  You are embodying the change you wish to see.  You cannot force peace with brutality any more than you can clean the house by bringing in more dirt and grime. 

“Be the change you wish to see,” said Gandhi and one of my bumper stickers.  Be the peace you wish to see. Start at home or start in the public.  It may actually be harder to be truly peaceful to those you love most — it was and is for me.  I am a work in progress.  I get my glimpses of hell, feel the suffering and have to remember I can still breathe into the Spirit.  I still have hope, and I can stand for peace here and now.

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