Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

Open Act 2: the Birth of Jesus

What do you say about a story so familiar? Where do you start when nearly every phrase of this chapter has been the text for Christmas sermons, or written in fancy script on Christmas cards, or memorized by a third grader for the congregational Christmas pageant … or for those who prefer another pop-culture reference … the phrases recited by Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas?”

I could use this as an opportunity to discuss the Christmas myths … talk about what’s historically accurate and what isn’t, share the Greek and Roman influences on our stories, illumine the three very different gospel accounts of the birth narrative and how we’ve merged the details into one seamless script. We could discuss the character of Mary and her reaction to the presence of Gabriel, or her honor of being the “handmaiden of The Lord” in the midst of the shame of an unwed pregnancy. We could look into the character of Joseph and how he discerns his dreams and lives in a more than righteous, more than “decently and in order”, but a loving, risky and compassionate way.

We could come at the story from the point of view of the shepherds, or the magi, fleshing out the meaning of the story for the peasants or the people of other lands. We could focus on the baby, born amidst the animals, wrapped in rags, and resting in a feed sty. Or the not-yet-bar-mitzvahed tween who, after having been a refugee in Egypt, seeks to learn about his own people’s heritage and faith in the temple, instead of being on the road again with his parents, brothers and sisters, and the whole caravan.

Today, though, I’m struck by the expectation of a people … It’s like we’re at the performance of a Broadway musical. Act 1 came to a close. We were in the lobby (or the rest room) for the last 15 minutes eavesdropping on other show-goers’ comments about the lighting, the acting, the singing, the story. Some of us strayed outside the realm of the theater for a bit … We returned text messages, answered an email or two, listened to voicemail, or updated our Facebook status. We may have had a glass of wine, or an overpriced handful of mixed nuts. But now we are ready … ready for the lights to dim, and the spotlight to illumine the conductor of the pit orchestra. It’s time. Act 1 was good, really good … But we expect something more in Act 2 … Something more delightful, more tear-jerking, more profound. We sit attentively, listening, and the music starts …

As the music starts, we hear the allusions to the first 21 chapters of the story. This act begins with words that are reminiscent of creation itself, “in the beginning …” Hear it? “In the beginning was The Word.” … “Let there be light.” … “The light shines over the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And then the narration of Moses and the Law: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” Remember? Moses met God on the mountain and in the tabernacle, but he was the only one to see God face to face.

We meet the young girl, Mary, who upon learning she is to be mother of Christ, asks “how is that to be?” It’s not quite the snarky laughter of Sarah who claimed to be too old to be pregnant, but the sweet naïveté of a child claiming she is too young. And then, while she’s “sent away” to her aunt’s home in another city, Mary sings the song of Hannah.

Joseph is the father of Jesus, the son of Jacob … Sound familiar? And he, too, is a dreamer. God speaks to him, gives him direction through his dreams. The dreams lead the holy family to Egypt … not as slaves, but as refugees.

The angels appear in the night sky to shepherds … Shepherds like Joseph’s brothers, like Esau and Jacob, like King David … And the magi come from far off lands to bring homage to the boy-king, just like people came from far and wide to Joseph in Egypt during the famine a couple thousand years earlier.

Herod is out to kill any young king, so he gives an order that all young boys will be killed … Do you remember how Moses was saved from infanticide? And the lover of musicals will hear the Egyptian motif played softly by the strings beneath the poetry of Act 2, scene 1 …

Clearly the birth of Jesus isn’t the beginning of the story. It is the opening of Act 2. And, just like an overture to the second act of a musical will include reprises of the melodies and allusions to the plot points of the first act, this chapter is filled with memories of what had come before — now in a new light. What’s coming in this act? We sit on the edge of our seats knowing and hoping Act 2 is not just more of the same, now we listen with awe and anticipation for the climax of the story. We’re not disappointed. Chapter 22 a not just another king story, it’s not just another prophet story or priest story … it’s the Messianic story, that not only points to the words of God in the Law and the writings, but reveals The Word of God in the flesh.

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Got Wisdom?

Got WisdomSince I was a child I have shared the desire of Solomon. If there is one word that I hope people would use to describe me and my life, it would be “wise.” Wisdom is more than intelligence or knowledge; it is the ability to see what really is, to know Truth.  I’m not sure why wisdom was so important to me as a child.  I’ve learned, though, that knowing a lot of stuff, being educated and being able to recite what other people say about things is all well and good, but it doesn’t change anything without the gift to see beyond the knowledge and research and to apply it — to create something new with it.

Solomon asked The Lord for “a discerning heart … to distinguish between right and wrong.”  In other translations the request is to discern good and evil.  The request is reminiscent of God’s command to Adam in the Garden of Eden:

“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” [Genesis 2:16-17, NIV]

The serpent tempts Adam and Eve by saying that the tree will not kill them, but it will give them the ability to see as God sees, to know what’s really going on, to know good and evil.  Having the knowledge of good and evil, however, is a dangerous thing. While we, humans, are like God, we are not God.  The danger of wisdom is thinking we know it all, that we no longer need God, that all of creation is at our command.  It’s, as Dwayne puts it in his post this week, the pride before the fall.

God knows, all too well, the affect of wisdom on human beings.  I believe that’s why he banished Adam and Eve from the garden, in order to protect them a bit more —  they needed help remembering to constantly rely on God and remain in close communion with the creator.  Yet, God hears young Solomon’s request for wisdom coming from the vulnerability of his deepest fear (that he is too young, too inexperienced, too naïve to govern the people well).  And God is moved.  So moved that God not only succumbs and bestows upon the young king the ability to see what really is, but God bathes him in all of the natural desires of men and women — riches, fame, prestige, good fortune, and progeny.

“Here’s what I want: Give me a God-listening heart so I can lead your people well, discerning the difference between good and evil. For who on their own is capable of leading your glorious people?” [1 Kings 3:9, The Message]

When Solomon begins to worship the gods of his wives, he falls far from his original request for a “God-listening heart.”  The child king knows innately that wisdom comes from listening to God, not just with the mind, but with his heart.  Wisdom is God-loving, God-praising, God-focussed, God-centered.  God approached Solomon in a dream after the king had loved, worshipped and praised the LORD with a thousand burnt offerings.  It was in the still, quiet, listening, discerning time of night, that Solomon heard the voice of God.  When his mind and heart were prepared to hear — his soul was naked, his vulnerability uncovered, and he was longing for the presence of God in his life.

That’s real wisdom, right there, already present within Solomon … like the Wizard of Oz offering the Lion a badge of courage … Embracing a child-like vulnerability that is open, truly open, to hear the Word of God, to see as God sees, to invite God into our lives … that’s how we discern good and evil, right and wrong.

I still long for wisdom.  I need to be constantly reminded, though, that true wisdom doesn’t come from me; it comes from God.  And it only comes when I am able to put my pride and my own ego aside, be vulnerable to the Spirit of creation, and allow God to share God’s vision with me.

“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes 

Stepping up in 2014

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It’s customary to do some reflection on our lives as we come to the end of one year and the beginning of another.  Some make resolutions … whether they’re kept for a week or a lifetime.  It’s also time to think about our spiritual well-being as we head into a new year.  If you’ve been with us for APC The Story since September, it’s time to get back into the groove of reading, reflecting and participating in discussion.  Perhaps a New Year’s resolution could be to comment and/or post on the blog more often.  If you haven’t been reading along … now is a good time to join in weekly reading of The Story.

We will be returning with Chapter 13: The King Who Had It All.  There are a number of ways to participate in the community both online and in real life :-).  Pick and choose which work best in your reading and study and interaction with others.  First, read chapter 13 before Sunday, January 5.  Then …

  • attend the Sunday School Class at Allentown Presbyterian Church at 9:30 am
  • attend worship at 8:30 or 11:00 am and hear a sermon related to the chapter (sermons will be also be posted on this blog as available)
  • attend an evening discussion group on Monday at 7:00 pm at the church
  • read the blog posts here beginning on Monday mornings
  • comment on the posts or pose your own questions about the chapter
  • join the discussion on Facebook’s group APC The Story here
  • tweet comments as you read, attend classes or worship, or just think about the reading each week. #apcthestory

Please consider asking your friends to join us, as well …

Rock Crushes Scissors

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We are all familiar with the David and Goliath story. I remember the story from my Sunday School lessons as a preschooler. It has all the makings of a great young adult movie franchise … the story follows the formula for a blockbuster: 1) a teenage hero or heroine, 2) faces a giant challenge, 3) a beautiful, handsome, and extremely “buff” star, and 4) as the hero comes of age, they find that the power they have is enough to overcome the giant or super-villain. This is the basic story arch for Harry Potter, Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Hunger Games.

David, the youngest of a large family of brothers, was ruggedly handsome and a shepherd boy who loved music and poetry. He was chosen by God, yet he was still just a kid. He had ambitions, ideals, and a strong faith. He lacked brawn, skill with a sword, military experience and rank. When the king’s army was faced with a warrior like Goliath — large, well-armored, and with a reputation for winning — little David, who was only there because he was bringing supplies to his brothers, steps forward out of teenage bravado (add a touch of foolishness), and, with no armor but the power of The Lord God, slays the giant.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, poses another explanation. It wasn’t a fluke that David won this battle; it was his advantage. David changed the rules of the game. There were three methods of warfare: hand to hand, horseback, and the “slingers”. They each have different advantages. The slingers throw things, often using the leather pouch on a rope. David wasn’t equipped for a sword fight, but he was a practiced slinger.  So when he tells Saul that he has fought and killed many animals as a shepherd, he is proposing that he fight using his strengths … by slingshot.  Then Saul places the armor on David, and he takes it off … the chain mail would be good for most of the soldiers there, but not for a slinger.  David knows he needs to be quick, agile, and accurate.  The advantage, of course, is that he never gets close enough for Saul to even raise his sword.  David takes him down from a distance, then moves in for the kill.  Rock crushes scissors.

The typical underdog interpretation underscores the need to trust and follow God’s commands, even if they are foolish.  Gladwell’s take says, sure it might look foolish by one set of assumptions, but David is working from the skills and talent he has been given and has developed as a shepherd.  David never assumes that he’s going to wrestle and sword fight.  David’s assumption is he’s going to win in whatever way he can … and his strength is in slinging stones.  He’s a sharp shooter with a slingshot.

Does this interpretation make God less powerful?  No, I don’t think so.  It does, however, show us a great example of one called by God to a specific task using his energy, intelligence, imagination and love in living into his call.  God calls each one of us … if not to be king, to be teacher or parent or co-worker or spouse or … and God equips us for the task.  Our expectations are often that God should give us the “armor” to do the job the way it’s always been done.  God calls us, however, as we are, with the gifts and skills and talents and perspective that is uniquely ours.  Using all our energy, and all of ourselves, we follow Christ … and when we do, God does miraculous work through us.

You Go Nowhere by Accident

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You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go,
God is sending you.
Wherever you are,
God has put you there.
God has a purpose
in your being there.
Christ lives in you
and has something
he wants to do
through you where you are.
Believe this and go in the
grace and love and
power of Jesus Christ.
— Rev. Richard Halverson

I love this benediction by the former U.S. Senate chaplain, Richard Halverson; I’ve been using it since it was introduced to me by Rev. E. Stanley Ott over a decade ago.  I would end every worship service at Westminster Presbyterian, Baytown, Texas, with the words; they were so much a part of our congregation that when I left the church for my next call, my going-away cake said, “you go nowhere by accident.”   Soon after I left the church, the new interim pastor came by my office wanting to talk about that benediction.  How could you possibly use those words?  The theology is all wrong, he said, and dangerous for the spiritual and emotional development of our members.  We need to assure people that God doesn’t cause the pain in their lives.  “You go nowhere by accident …” implies that God creates even the bad things that happen to good people.

We see the same tension in the Joseph story.  Does God cause those bad things to happen to Joseph?  It is all part of God’s master plan?  Is God a powerful manipulator of human lives?  Did God know Joseph’s brothers would traffic him to the Ishmaelite traders who would sell him to Potiphar’s house, where he would be accused of attempted rape and thrown in prison, which would lead to Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and leading Egypt through the boom and bust, all so that he could provide food for Jacob’s family during the famine?  Did God plan all of that?  Did Joseph really go nowhere by accident?  Didn’t he really go by human abuse and by assault?  This couldn’t have been God’s intention.

Joseph says pretty much the same to his brothers when they return to Egypt, in part, to appease their fear and guilt about what they had done to him:

And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.  For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.  But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. (Genesis 45:5-7)

I cannot believe in a God who would cause that amount of pain in the life of Jacob’s favorite just so that one day he can save his family.  I cannot believe in that any more than I can believe that a person is stricken with cancer so that they can be a witness of goodness in the chemo lounge  God doesn’t intentionally heap riches and wealth on one and starvation and poverty on another just to make a point.  God doesn’t make bad things happen so that we can grow in faith, or be more creative, or meet the right people.  That understanding of God is mistaken; it’s premised on a hind-sighted logic that gives meaning to something after the fact.  It takes a truth … “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28)” … and turns it around to imply that God caused those bad things to happen in the first place.  No, that is not the God I know and love.  God is more like the potter with the clay.  If things don’t turn out exactly the way it was imagined, then the potter uses the apparent imperfection or flaw to create something new, dramatic, functional and beautiful.

In Joseph’s case, God continues to act in the life of the boy, who was abused and stripped of all he was given (his name, his family, his home, his prized cloak, his freedom, his identity) yet continues to live faithfully.   In fact, God blesses Joseph so much, that he is a blessing not only to his own family, but to many nations.  Sound familiar?

When I say the words of the benediction, “you go nowhere by accident” I am not saying God has a master script that we’re all reciting in which God wants us to be in the cells of prison (literally or metaphorically); I am saying, instead, that God is so much a part of us that he is present even in the worst of times and the ugliest of places.  Even in those times and in those places, we are guided and shielded and blessed by the hand of goodness.  God can take the worst of conditions and still work in us in such a way that we can be a blessing to others.  Christ, who lives in us, wants to do something through us where we are.

Joseph realizes that it’s not his own ingenuity that saved his family, it was not his intellect or his good looks or his wealth … it was the work of God … the blessing of God working it out through him …  “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).”  This is the life of faith.  So everywhere we go, we go with the intentionality of God’s grace, God’s abundance, working in us, strengthening us, saving us, forgiving us …

What do you think of the idea that God didn’t have it all “planned” from the beginning, but that God works in and through us, even our flaws and sins?

What “The Story” ISN’T

“The Story” is an attempt to make the Bible more accessible to a wider audience. Most people are afraid that reading the Bible is an impossible challenge for “real” people — only theologians and pastors can (or even should) attempt such a herculean task. While I certainly don’t believe that, there are certainly very real obstacles to the average person succeeding. Among them (as I see it)

  • There is a lot of discontinuity. The story line is broken up into chapters which jump back and forth chronologically.
  • Some passages, especially early in the Old Testament, are very repetitive lists of information, which are difficult to work through
  • The “wisdom literature” chapters, while some of the most beautiful poetry, don’t do anything to move the story forward, and can get the reader bogged down
  • And, of course, it’s very long

“The Story” tries to work around these issues

  • The content is arranged chronologically, so that the reader encounters events in the order in which they happen
  • Those portions of the text which don’t move the story forward are skipped completely. That includes the wisdom literature
  • The content is reduced to 31 chapters, each of a “readable” length to make sure that the reader doesn’t feel they’re getting in too deep

From what I’ve seen so far, the editors of “The Story” have succeeded in their goal of making the Bible more accessible. However, I think it’s important to be aware of the cost of that accessibility. I have only read the first chapter thus far, but I’m already aware of what I feel are significant omissions. For instance, in the story of Noah, there is no mention of what happens after Noah and his family leave the ark, when Noah gets drunk and passes out. While I understand why this may have been left out, I think it’s important to realize that there may be significant nuances that we lose in the “Reader’s Digest” condensed version.

That’s not to say I don’t find value in reading “The Story.” I do. I only wanted to make sure that we understand the limitations of what we’re doing.

My hope is that, as we move through this time together, our discussions can and will bring in some of those nuances that the editors of “The Story” had to leave out.

God’s Story/Your Story

Community of JesusI attended the daily prayer service at the Church of the Transfiguration at Community of Jesus in Cape Cod this summer.  The members of the Benedictine community sang the order of the day using Gregorian Chant amidst the worship space that had been designed to tell “the story.”  Outside the Church, the gathering space before the large wooden doors represents the time before “the fall;” it is creation in all of its fullness.  Inside we walk through a nave that is surrounded by mosaic murals and paintings representing the stories of scripture.  The focal point above the chancel is the triumphant kingdom, the realm of the glorified Christ.  We heard from our docent, the next day, that each piece of glass in the mosaic, each bird represented in the tree of life, each stone and each brush stroke also has a story.  And on top of that, each person sitting there, or whoever sat there, or will ever sit here has a story … we are all interconnected.

The book, The Story, is meant to highlight the “upper story” of God in Christ, the meta-narrative, the over-arching story of salvation in the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The parts of the Bible that were chosen to be a part of this particular narrative were chosen so that the larger story could be told in an accessible format, similar to a novel.  Even the novel, you know, has stories within stories … each one adding something important to the overall theme, story-arch, purpose, of the book.

While most of the words are taken directly from the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible, you will notice there are spaces between some paragraphs.  The spaces are there to let us know that some of the original text (often quite a bit of the original text) has been removed in order to keep the story moving.  At other times, you’ll notice some text in italics; these are sentences added by the editors to help the reader fill in the major storyline as the chapters move forward.

Every time scripture is redacted or a particular “lectionary” (readings) are chosen, there is bias.  In fact, one can argue, the very fact that these particular ancient texts have been included in the sacred writings  we know as the Bible and others have been excluded from the canon, is an interpretation.  The canonization process is considered by the Christian Church to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit even as the writing of the texts themselves were.  The redaction of the texts in this publication of The Story, while no doubt influenced by the Spirit, is still the work of human beings and influenced by their own theological priorities and perspectives.

So don’t make the mistake of thinking The Story IS the Bible.  It is not.  It is, however, a trailer, a “Reader’s Digest” version, a teaser, a beginning … As we read the The Story, together, we can grab the bigness of the story in way we miss by reading one verse at a time.  We will have opportunity, here and in other groups, to question, reflect, and delve deeper both in the upper stories, the lower stories and in our stories.

Just as the Church of the Transfiguration is literally an artistic story within story, so it is with the Christian story.  Beneath the over-arching story of the deliverance of the people of Israel, for instance, is the story of Joseph, the story of Moses, the story of the exodus, etc.  Beneath the meta-narrative of the history of salvation is the story of creation, the story of exile, the story of Jesus’ birth, life and resurrection, the story of the early church.  And beneath and within and around all of those stories is the story of you and me.

Our story is both formed and informed by the larger stories of our family, our friends, our heritage, our nation, our people … but as Christians, our story is ultimately formed, informed, and transformed by work of God … in the lives of God’s people, in the life and resurrection of Jesus, and in our own lives.

I’m looking forward to reading The Story with you.  This week we’ll begin with “Chapter 1: The Beginning of Life as We Know It.”  Look for our initial reflection on Chapter 1, which will be published on this blog Monday morning, September 16.  In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:

  • What do you think of this concept of upper story and lower story?
  • What questions or comments do you have about our journey together?
  • What questions do you start out with as you anticipate reading the Bible in this way over the next few months?