SLIDE 3: PAIN IN EXCHANGE FOR A HIGHER PLATELET COUNT
Life has been a challenge for the last five and half weeks. On November 19th I had my semi-annual physical with Dr. Chapman, and thank God I did. My platelet count had fallen so low, 98, the surgeon might refuse to operate unless I could bring that count up to at least 110. But how were we going to bring my platelet count up, when the primary reason the platelets had fallen was the anti-inflammatory I had been taking for the pain of my arthritis. So Dr. Chapman told me to cut out all of the Ibuprofen I had been taking, and reduce the number of Celebrex from two to one per day. I had no idea how much the anti-inflammatory had been helping with my pain, until I had to stop taking them. I went from having an occasional bad day to every day as a difficult challenge.
SLIDE 4: SMILEY FROWNY FACE CHART
I don’t like that smiley frowny face pain chart. I mean what is the difference between pain at a 2 or a 3, or even 4 – really!? And since pain is experienced in our heads how can I compare my pain to some chart that for all world looks like it is supposed to be some kind of objective measure? Like I can choose a number on that chart and compare my pain to someone else’s pain? What I do know is that if it hurts enough to wake me up at night, and then if I can’t relieve enough of the pain to go back to sleep, the next day is going to be a crumby day. Pain in the day time is easier to manage, not fun but easier to manage, although constant pain even at a relatively low level drains my strength. There is only just so far I can go before pain exhausts me – about eight o’clock at night.
SLIDE 5: PAIN OF DEPRESSION IS HARD TO BEAR
Now I know my experience is not unique. I am not the first person to experience pain nor will I be the last. All of you know what it feels like to hurt. Especially I want to acknowledge the pain of those who suffer depression, because so often their suffering is discounted. “It is all in your head!” “Pull your socks up and get over it.” All pain, friends, is in our heads. That is where we experience all life, everything! The psychological pain of mental illness is no less real than any other pain.
SLIDE 6: MANY SOURCES OF PAIN
Sometimes there is an organic source for our pain – like there is no cartilage left in my hip, and so the surgeon will physically perform surgery to replace or repair a diseased joint. Sometimes our pain results from an injury, an accident, and we perform surgery or set a bone and then allow time for the healing of damaged tissue. Other times a growth or an infection becomes the source of our pain, and we operate or use antibiotics or any number of other medical protocols to intervene in the disease and help return us to health. And sometimes we cannot operate or reconstruct some nerve damage, especially in a person’s back, or neck, but like with Judy Cameron and Zig recently there are injections, pain blocks that can relieve pain for weeks some times for months and buy some time pain free.
SLIDE 7: ALL PAIN IS WORTHY OF BEING TAKEN SERIOUSLY
The point I want to make is that all pain is worthy of being taken seriously and some hope offered for relieving the hurt. Judy Cameron this past Sunday was relating her experience at the Spine Center. She reported in at 5:30 in the morning, and all of the staff and the nurses were helpful and sympathetic. Then the anesthesiologist came in to see her, and as Judy said, “He could immediately tell I was in pain, and he said, ‘You are in pain aren’t you?’” Judy’s spirits were lifted. Someone was recognizing and acknowledging her pain and taking her seriously.
SLIDE 8: JUSTIFY OUR PAIN
So often in a medical situation, when the personnel show us the little smiley frowny face pain chart and ask us, “what level of pain are you in?” it’s like being asked to defend ourselves or justify our pain, as if we cannot be believed. And maybe our pain isn’t an 8 or a 9 or a 10, but we’ve been in pain for so long, we just don’t want to live that way any longer – and a kind of despair sets in. All pain is worthy of being taken seriously and addressed with kindness and some hope of relief.
SLIDE 9: MEDICAL COMMUNITY CONCERNED WITH THE ABUSE OF PRESCRIPTION PAIN MEDICATIONS
I know the medical community is concerned with the abuse of prescription pain medications. Last Spring I think the treatment of my own disease was mishandled by a physician and a couple of nurses who didn’t want to take seriously the pain I was reporting. The nurses kept telling me that I had to tough it out, and their “Nurse Ratched” attitude poisoned the Physician’s judgment. It’s like they thought I was just angling for more drugs, and so they didn’t listen. As a result I spent two and half months in physical therapy trying to justify my pain, when there was no amount of physical therapy or “toughing it out” that was going to heal a hip that no longer had any cartilage in it. If they had listened sympathetically, and they had been willing to order a couple of more tests, they might have discovered the problem in my right hip six months earlier.
SLIDE 10: TAKE SERIOUSLY THE PAIN OF OTHERS
As human beings we are called upon to take seriously the pain of others. We are encouraged to respond with kindness and love. Our job is not to demand that people justify their pain to us, but rather to humbly listen, and when we have the power, to relieve pain.
SLIDE 11: PAIN CAN BE IMPORTANT
Now let me acknowledge we cannot heal all disease. We cannot relieve all pain. The pain of adolescence, growing up, is ours to use in becoming an adult person. The pain of sorrow and grief, when our parents and loved ones die is a gift to help us fathom the secrets of life, death and being human. Non-chronic physical pain is a gift to help us, so we know when something is wrong. We do not want to mask pain that is our body’s message to seek medical treatment.
SLIDE 12: MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT
Paul lived during a time, when effective medical treatment just wasn’t available. Medication for pain was almost unheard of. We do not know what physical malady Paul was suffering. And I do not want to misinterpret Paul’s words to say, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” Life is painful enough, let’s not suffer any more than is necessary. There does come a time, when God’s answer to Paul is a word of hope: “My grace is sufficient.” We will endure and survive, because God’s grace is sufficient.
SLIDE 13: FALL ASLEEP IN MY ROCKING CHAIR
God’s promise is not that every disease can be cured. We do not recover from old age. We are all mortal and one day we will die. I have this wonderful fantasy that I will fall asleep in my rocking chair still enjoying good health, at the age of ninety-five and just not wake up. We might all hope for such a gentle and peaceful exit from this life. In the Catholic faith there is even a formal prayer for a peaceful death.
SLIDE 14: WE ARE NOT ALONE – THANKS BE TO GOD
God says, “My grace is sufficient.” When we experience pain God is with us, God’s grace is sufficient. In life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone, thanks be to God.
Allow me to close by sharing an excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s Poem on Death:
SLIDE 15: ON DEATH
You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity. For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
God’s grace is sufficient.
The Old One
An Original Christmas Story
My name is Yitzaak Ben Ephraim, but no one remembers my name any more. They call me “the old one.” I have outlived three wives almost all of my children, and now I keep sheep with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Although to be fair I am not much of a shepherd any more. I am lame. I cannot keep up with the flock, but I still count the sheep in the evening, when my grandchildren bring them to the fold. I still know the remedies when sheep are sick or injured. I know where the hidden meadows lie, where grass can be found even in the dry season. I do not eat much, with age my appetite is smaller, so, the grandchildren do not begrudge me a place at the table. My legs are no longer strong, but I can earn my keep with what I know.
Up there on the hill is the village of Bethlehem – the City of David, the Great King of Israel’s past. He like me was a shepherd. He cared for sheep in these very hills. I do not wander the hills much anymore. My joints are too stiff and sore. So, I stay here in this valley in our sheepfold. It is a natural depression with a generous rock shelter and a little cave, where we can get in out of the weather. I stay here and watch over my youngest great-grandchildren who help me care for any lambs or sheep who are sickly or injured. Sometimes I teach them how to use the shepherd’s staff and the sling, the tools of our trade, so they can grow up to become the next generation of shepherds in Bethlehem.
I tell them they must learn to be brave and to use the weapons of the shepherd, for these hills are not always safe. From the North great Siberian wolves wander as far south as Israel. And from the South we are occasionally visited by lions from Africa. I tell them the legend of the shepherd boy David, who defended his flock and killed a lion with nothing but his staff and his sling. And then they ask me if it is true that the Great King David killed the giant Goliath with his sling. And I laugh and tell them that everyone in our family knows that it was Elhanan Ben Jaare of Bethlehem one of our own ancestors, who was the slayer of Goliath.
But the great days of Israel are gone. I was born, when we Jews were still a free people, with a Jewish King in the 20th year of the reign of Alexander Jannaeus. I was born the second son of Ephraim of Bethlehem, a free holder with a flock of over a hundred sheep, and a leader among the shepherds of the City of David. Our lives were peaceful and during my childhood the early and the late rains made the pastures of the wilderness lush — a time of milk and honey.
When I was seven years of age, when the great Queen Salome succeeded her husband and reigned in Jerusalem. My world was at peace as I grew old enough to shepherd the flock along with my older brother Yacob. But when the Queen died in my sixteenth year, her two sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus began a war over who would succeed to the throne – foolishness for the Jews, only our enemies prospered.
Normally during this time I would have taken a wife like my older brother, but my father postponed marriage for me, because of the troubled times. For four years they fought, and finally the struggle was decided by the Roman General Pompey. With his legions he installed Hyrcanus as King with the wily Idumean Antipater as his Prime Minister. We Jews were no longer Masters of our own destiny.
After order had been restored my father arranged a marriage for me with Elisheva, the beautiful daughter of Rabbi Eliakim. These were years of great happiness and we were blessed with four sons and three daughters. The flocks grew and Yacob and I took care of our father.
But these were not good times for Israel. Aristobulus appealed to Aretas, the King of the Nabataeans, who brought an army of 50,000 soldiers and besieged Hyrcanus and Antipater in Jerusalem. When powerful men seek for their own gain common people suffer. On their march through Bethlehem the Nabataeans killed my father blessed be his memory. And during the civil war Hyrcanus called upon the great saint Honi the Circle Drawer to curse the forces of Aristobulus. Honi prayed instead, “Lord of the Universe, as the besieged and the besiegers both belong to your people, I beseech you not to answer the evil prayers of either side.” For his wisdom and courage Honi was stoned to death.
One war followed another. When the Parthians invaded our land, we took our flocks into the wilderness, and stayed away from our home for three months until the invaders left. The Romans fought two of their civil wars involving different factions in Judea. And twenty-five years later Herod, son of Antipater the Idumean was King of the Jews and Judea was a province of Rome. My brother Yacob was dead, two of my sons were dead, and I was head of the family. We kept our flocks, but war, unrest and Roman taxes diminished our holdings.
Herod is an evil ruler, but at least there has been an uneasy peace. As the years of Herod’s rule have lengthened I have become the Old One. I have one son left, 10 grandsons, and twenty-two great-grandsons. God is good. Together we have over two-hundred sheep, when we count them as they enter the fold at night.
But enough about history, what I want to share with you are the amazing events that have happened here in Bethlehem in the past few months. But first allow me to tend to a lamb one of my great-grandsons has brought to me.
It all started four months ago. Herod King of the Jews sent out orders that all of his subjects must return to the towns of their origin in order to be counted and taxed. That was easy enough for our family, for we have counted Bethlehem as our home for over a thousand years, since we Jews settled in the land. But many other people, claiming the great King David as their ancestor sought to travel to Bethlehem to be counted and taxed.
From the shepherd’s field East of the City we watched them come and go. The wealthy rode in litters, or chariots, the less well off rode in ox carts, and the poor, bless them, they walked or occasionally they could afford an animal, a donkey to carry their belongings. Old Levi the Inn Keeper, he was making a lot of money, with all of the visitors to Bethlehem. Most nights his Inn was overflowing, and people were even staying in some of the caves that dot the side of the hill below Bethlehem.
The night was clear and cool. The stars were bright in the clear sky, and two of my grandsons Enoch and Joshua along with an assortment of great-grandchildren, had built a fire at the mouth of our rock shelter, and they were staying-up to watch over the flock.
“Enoch,” I asked, why do you stay up so late tonight?”
“Ah,” he replied, several of the ewes have given birth this week and Joshua thought he heard wolves or wild dogs in the hills over there. Yacob and Dan will relieve us at Midnight. You are welcome ‘Old One’ to watch with us. Our wives will bring dinner for you also.”
So we kept watch over the flock by night. Two great-grandchildren fell asleep, one on either side of me, and after eating my dinner, I dozed fitfully. About mid-night, as Yacob, Dan, and two of my other great-grandchildren joined us, a bright light appeared in field just beyond the light of our campfire.
“What is that light,” I demanded! Yacob and Dan went to see.
“Come quickly,” they called. “Come and see.”
With my two canes and one great-grandchild on each arm I hobbled out beyond the light of our campfire to see what was there. Standing like a giant at least seven feet tall and exuding a bright white light was what I could only conclude was a spirit, an angel or a jinn.
“‘Old One,’” the being of light called to me, “Do not be afraid. I come from heaven to bring you good tidings of a great joy. The Messiah has been born this night in Bethlehem, a true descendent of the Great King David.”
“But how can we know this is true?” asked Dan.
“This will be a sign for you,” continued the Being of Light, “You will find a new born infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is the Messiah for whom you have waited.”
With that the Being of Light seemed to multiply into a hundred a thousand points of light in the night sky and we could hear a singing, a haunting melody that seemed to say, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to all people of good will.”
After a few minutes the lights faded until only the bright stars were overhead. “Old One,” asked Yacob, “what can this mean?”
“Enoch and Joshua,” I ordered, “go get your brothers. We will leave a guard here and go over to the caves to investigate.”
“But why the caves,” asked Dan?
“You heard the angel or Jinn or whatever it was. It said, ‘A new born infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ That means this baby is in one of those caves being used as a stable. We will organized a search.”
My son Benyamin, and my ten grandsons gathered in the sheepfold. “Enoch and Joshua will stay here with all of the great-grandchildren, except Judah and Asher who will help me walk. The rest of us will form three groups take torches and go and search those caves. If we find something we will send back a group to allow Enoch, Joshua and those left behind to come and see.”
Slowly and painfully with Judah and Asher assisting me, we made our way over to and up the hill that overshadowed our sheepfold. After ten minutes we heard Dan shouting, “Over here, over here, we’ve found it over here!” It was the cave used as a stable by the Inn Keeper Levi.
This cave actually wound its way deep into the hillside with many connecting passages. But there near the opening of the cave lying on a bed of straw in a manger was a new born child. Rebecca the midwife was attending to the mother, who looked tired. The father looked frightened as he listened to Dan tell the story of the announcement of the angels.
I had seen many babies in my time, but this child seemed strangely peaceful. I edged over toward Rebecca the midwife and I said, “Rebecca, this one seems special.”
“Yes, Old One,” she replied, “this child is different. Maybe the angel you heard is correct.”
Just then in the distance we could hear the sound of wolves. “Quickly Benyamin take Yacob and Dan and relieve Enoch and Joshua, there are wolves about. We must be watchful tonight. Judah and Asher gather some wood and light a fire in the entrance of this cave. The wolves will pick up the scent of blood and the after birth. We must protect them.”
After my great-grandsons had kindled a fire, we left the little family, and returned to the sheepfold. As old as I am, I never dreamed that I would see an angel or live to see the coming of the Messiah. What an extraordinary life. If you can forgive an old man, however, the call of nature, I will return to share the rest of my story.
Several days after the birth of the child, we noticed a strange caravan coming from the direction of Jerusalem. There were camels and donkeys and many servants dressed in strange clothes. The leaders of the caravan appeared to be very rich, Kings or Princes perhaps. They pitched tents made of expensive and colorful materials.
The next day a servant from the caravan came to our sheepfold to negotiate the purchase of a sheep. The servant told us his Masters had traveled from Persia following a star, and they were seeking the King of the Jews. And quite unexpectedly they found a newly born child in one of the caves on the hill side. Joshua told the servant about the appearance of the angel the night the child was born. How we had visited the cave and found the baby as the angel had told us. Concluding his purchase the servant took the sheep and returned to his Masters.
The next day, however, two of the princes came to our sheepfold to ask about the message of the angels. They seemed concerned whether it had been an angel or a jinn – a desert spirit. I told them, “I do not know such things for sure, but the being of light who gave us the message did not feel evil in anyway, and following the sign given to us we found the child almost right away.”
One of the princes thanked me and asked for my name. “They call me ‘Old One,’ I replied.”
“Well, ‘Old One,’” he said, “we are going to leave tomorrow. We were originally supposed to carry news of this to King Herod in Jerusalem, but an angel came to me in a dream last night and warned me to depart from here and return home without returning to Jerusalem.”
“Then I can well believe the angel in your dream,” I replied, “for Herod is an evil ruler. He will search for the child to do it harm.”
The Princes thanked us and returned to their tents, and I began to consider how we might protect the man, the woman and their child. That night when the sheep returned to the fold I called for a family meeting.
“My children,” I began, “I now understand why the angel appeared to us. The Princes have been warned that Herod will come to try to do harm to the child. We must help them to escape. Let us gather together what extra food we can give them, and then Benyamin you take Judah and Asher and lead the family by way of the South Mountain meadow to the road to Hebron. If you set out early in the morning with some of the sheep, no one will notice what direction the family is leaving.”
Everyone agreed to the plan. Judah and Asher went to the cave and told the family they would come back for them with supplies in the morning. The Princes’ caravan left in the night, and the next morning Benyamin, Judah, and Asher with the family set out going south. I gave them my blessing and told them not to stop until they had left Herod’s Kingdom.
Unsure of what might happen next, we sent the rest of our flock and our family into the hills. Enoch, Joshua, myself and a dozen sheep stayed in the sheepfold to see what would happen. By late afternoon we saw a detail of Herod’s soldiers approaching Bethlehem from the North. There were the sounds of struggling and wailing from the town. We saw soldiers begin searching the caves on the side of the hill. I told Enoch and Joshua to hide in our cave. Then three of Herod’s soldiers approached the sheepfold.
“Hey you, old man,” they called out, “where is everyone?”
“Eh?” I queried.
“I said,” yelled the soldier, “Where is everyone?”
“Where is who?” I yelled back.
“Everyone else,” the soldier yelled again, “all of your people, where have they gone?”
“Eh, gone where?” I asked in return.
“That’s what we want to know,” shouted the soldier in exasperation!
“They call me the old one,” I replied, “I was born long ago, no one tells me anything.”
“The old man’s mind is addled,” said the soldier to his companions, “we might as well be talking to one of these sheep. Let’s go.”
And so the soldiers of Herod left. The little family escaped to Egypt. After several days my family returned from the hills with the rest of the sheep and the great-grandchildren. And so on this special night, when we remember the birth of that special baby so long ago, let my prayer for you be that you live long enough to bless your great-grandchildren, and may each one of you live so that you hear the angels sing!
Moving with Mary’s Song
SLIDE 3: WHEN WOMEN HAVE OPPORTUNITY BIRTH RATE DECLINES
In recent years population growth has begun to slow. In the developed world families have figured out they can give a better life to themselves and their children, if they have fewer kids. The advent of social security programs has meant that parents do not have to produce as many children in order to provide for their care in old age. In economies where opportunities for women have flourished birth rates have dropped dramatically. I was struck by all of the women going to work in the morning in Bangladesh one of the most over populated countries in the world, that has finally managed to curb its birth rate. Many countries in Europe have experienced such a drop in births that their populations are even on the decline.
SLIDE 4: MARY & ELIZABETH GAVE BIRTH TO THE FUTURE
In the United States as women delay the age of marriage, and many couples choose not to have children, our birth rate has declined to 1.86 below the 2.1 children needed for population replacement. And so we may not appreciate the importance of our scripture. In the ancient world children were considered an unmitigated blessing, because they represented the future. War, plague, pestilence, famine might wipe out entire generations and populations. The only guarantee for the future of a community was the birth of children. Literally in our story Mary and Elizabeth were giving birth to the future of the Jewish people. The children they were carrying in their wombs were special, because John and Jesus would point the way to a new understanding of the faith of the prophets.
SLIDE 5: SHARE
As John would proclaim it is not enough to be born a descendant of Abraham. The way of faith is a conscious choice to share. He who has two coats give one to him who has none, and she who has food, let her share with anyone who is hungry. Faith is not a set of belief statements, or a prescribed liturgy, or a specific form of prayer or meditation, praise and worship in a particular, church, synagogue or even the Temple in Jerusalem. No, what does the Lord require of us? But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.
SLIDE 6: DANCING THE SONG OF GOD
In our scripture Mary sings a song of triumph:
I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God. God took one good look at me, and look what happened— I’m the most fortunate woman on earth! What God has done for me will never be forgotten, the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave on those who are in awe before him. He bared his arm and showed his strength, scattered the bluffing braggarts. He knocked tyrants off their high horses, pulled the down trodden out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; the callous rich were left out in the cold. He embraced his chosen child, Israel; he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high. It’s exactly what he promised, beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
SLIDE 7: MARY’S GOD SIDES WITH THE OPPRESSED
The God to whom Mary sang and danced was on the side of the oppressed. “He knocked tyrants off their high horses, and pulled the down trodden out of the mud. The starving poor sat down to a banquet; while the callous rich were left out in the cold.” Mary’s God was not vaguely neutral. He took the side of the down trodden. She promised, liberation to the captives, healing of the sick and recovery of sight to the blind.
SLIDE 8: MARY’S GOD RESPECTS WOMEN
Mary’s God also respected and valued women. The Greek and Roman gods were forever coming down to earth and seducing or raping young mortal females, leaving a string of half mortal, half human offspring behind – Cychreus, Cymopoleia, Dionysius, Eirene, Endymion, Helen of Troy, Hercules, Perseus, Theseus, and the list goes on. Gods can sort of do what they want – and in Greek mythology they did.
SLIDE 9: GOD WAITS FOR MARY’S ANSWER
But the God of the Hebrews, Mary’s Lord, was different. In the story of the Enunciation of Mary, God sent an angel to explain the divine purpose to the young maiden. Mary expressed her innocence by asking, “but how can this be since I have no husband?” Then the angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
And there was a pause, while the angel waited for the young woman’s answer. The whole universe stopped and waited for a fourteen year old girl to make up her mind. It was a pregnant pause, pardon the pun, for all of the divine intentions waited at the cross roads of history for Mary’s answer.
SLIDE 10: GIVING BIRTH TO A MESSIAH WAS DANGEROUS
And Mary had much to ponder. An unmarried woman found pregnant could be accused of adultery and stoned to death. Giving birth to a Messiah was dangerous. Herod had already killed several rivals for his throne including his brother-law, Aristobulus, his wife, Marimamne, and two of his children, Alexander and Aristobulus. It was not without irony that August Caesar said, he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Mary had much to ponder. If she said, “Yes,” to God her life would be in danger, and the life of her child would be anything but secure. According to tradition she lived to witness the execution of her son.
SLIDE 11: GOD ASKS US TO GIVE BIRTH TO THE FUTURE
How long Mary waited before giving an answer to the angel, we do not know. Heaven held its breath, and finally the teen-aged girl from Nazareth said, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me as you have said.” Mary was given a choice and she chose to give birth to the future. God gives similar choices to us, maybe not literally pregnancy and childbirth, but God calls upon us to become part of giving birth to the future.
SLIDE 12: ADVENT OF GOD’S LOVE THORUGH US
I talk about giving birth to the future rather than creating the future, because our mission is to embody the love of God in the world in the same way that Jesus was God’s love in the flesh. The love of God is supposed to come into the world through us, we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Thus as we love one another as Christ has loved us, the Commonwealth of God is born in the world. We do not celebrate the Advent of Christ only in the past, but the Advent of God’s love in and through us in the present.
Are we ready to become the love of God now? Are we willing to embody God’s love in our world? Like with Mary, God is awaiting our answer. And our answer today is as important as Mary’s answer 2,000 years ago.
SLIDE 13: IT WAS BAD MANNERS
We have launched ourselves into an election cycle that is filled with fear and hate. And maybe the fear and hate are just more obvious today than in much of our past. Our culture has become ruder and cruder, and people are willing to say things out loud today that before just went unsaid. I remember Linda Roebuck commenting upon the racism that surrounded her growing up in the South, and how her mother would say that certain hateful expressions were just bad manners. Apparently not any more.
SLIDE 14: FEAR LEADS TO ANGER LEADS TO HATE & SUFFERING
We seem to have given permission to a level of hate speech that for me is shocking. And one of the problems is that openly expressed hate speech encourages fear, and as Yoda so wisely told us fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. In the 1930’s in Germany the fears and frustrations of ordinary people were focused on the Jews. Wild and hateful allegations against Jews were allowed to multiply, and then pretty soon wild and hateful actions were perpetrated against the Jews.
SLIDE 15: NEW TARGETS
This political season in America is similar to Germany at the beginning of the 1930’s, only instead of Jews we have new targets of fear and hate – Muslims, Hispanics, Immigrants of all shades, Feminists, Gays and Lesbians. As followers of the way of Jesus we are called upon to stand up for love. Love wins! Fear and hate lead to the dark side. We are called by God to be messengers of the light. God is calling us to become love in the flesh. How will we respond?
SLIDE 16: I WAIT FOR YOU
Remember the old story about the young man who finds the Messiah and asks, “Why aren’t you eliminating war and hunger. Why aren’t you healing the sick and bringing economic justice to the poor? What are you waiting for?”
And remember the answer of the Messiah is God’s answer to us, “I wait for you.”
Life Changing Events
SLIDE 4: ADVENT – PREPARATION & WAITING
About the second Sunday of Advent some people become impatient with the lectionary, because they are looking for the Christmas Story already. But Advent is counter intuitive in our immediate gratification culture, because Advent is about preparation and waiting – patience. Some fundamentalist evangelicals like to get everyone excited, because Jesus may appear at any moment. Change your life and donate to the ministry, because it’s your last chance! The end is near! If the end is so near, we might wonder why they need the donation to the ministry, but then that is another issue.
SLIDE 5: ADVENT SEEMED TO GO ON FOREVER
The four long weeks before Christmas teach us to be patient. When we were kids, remember Advent seemed to go on forever? Christmas was never going to arrive! If we want to change the world, if we even want to change ourselves, even something as simple as losing a little weight, building up our strength before an operation be prepared for the possibility of a long wait! Waiting patiently is the lesson of Advent.
SLIDE 6: PREPARE FOR GOD’S COMING
Like many other first century Jews, John the Baptist was in despair. The world was going to hell. Israel was a conquered occupied disorganized people who had no hope of throwing off the iron-yoke of Imperial Rome. He told his fellow Jews that God was up to something, and they had better get right with God before the end. He told them it was not enough to be born a Jew, you had to make a personal decision to embrace the way of God and keep the commandments, in order to be ready, when God intervened in history and brought the world as they knew it to an end.
SLIDE 7: MANY LIFE CHANGING EVENTS
Certainly the end of the world would be a life changing event. But there are many other life changing events of an individual nature that signal the end of the world as we know it personally. Divorce can certainly signal the end of our own world as we know it. A major illness can change everything. Who would have thought a year ago I would be preparing for a hip replacement. The birth of a child can initiate a whole new world of 2 o’clock feedings, pre-school, parent-teacher conferences we never knew before. Children leaving home for school, or moving away to take new employment can signal a major life transition. You know what the Rabbis say about the beginning of life. “When does life begin? When the dog dies and children leave home.” A major illness for a parent or loved one, or the death of a parent can mark another major change in our lives. The end of a job can seem like the end of the world, and retirement for good or for ill is a life changing event.
SLIDE 8: EXTERNAL EVENTS CHANGE OUR WORLD
Sometimes our lives are changed by a major event in the world around us. Many people can still remember where they were and what they were doing, when they heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. It was after lunch on a Friday, and I was in fifth hour Geometry Class just before Thanksgiving, when the news came over the High School intercom. What about you? Many people too young to remember the Kennedy assassination, can remember, where they were, when the planes flew into the Twin towers on 9/11. When the first plane hit the north tower, I was driving Elizabeth to school, and she was startled, because the news commentators on the radio started uttering expletives on air. The other people in the news room were too stunned to beep out the bad language. Our lives can be changed by events in the world around us.
SLIDE 9: CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS – VIETNAM WAR
For me one of the defining life changing events was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was only twelve at the time going through confirmation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation awakened me to the need to choose a socially and spiritually meaningful career path. At first I thought that path was to prepare to enter the Foreign Service, until during the Vietnam War, another important life changing event, I realized that the peace makers were not making peace, and I was being called into the ministry.
SLIDE 10: INTERNAL EVENT
Our lives can also be changed by internal events. Malcolm Clark in his book the Physics of God, records an internal event that changed his life: “I got a burning desire to answer these questions after my forty-fifth birthday. Birthdays never bothered me up until that one. When I turned forty five I looked right down the barrel of the death gun and saw that it was indeed loaded. Looking back to age twenty I realized that the passage of twenty five years seemed like nothing.
“For whatever reason, the palpable recognition of my personal mortality inspired me to want to understand the basis for moral versus immoral or amoral behavior. Ethical conduct has value in the here and now. I didn’t deny that. The lives of everyone in society improve when people act according to just rules. Yet, I felt a visceral need to know whether or not a more basic rationale existed to define and favor certain behavioral principles over others. I wondered whether or not generally accepted moral practices had a deeper basis. Would a more fundamental understanding of ultimate reality reveal inadequacies in contemporary moral behavior?” The realization of our mortality, however it comes, can be a life altering event.
SLIDE 11: DON’T MISS THE MIRACLE
We all have the possibility of experiencing life changing events, and they come, whether we are ready for them or not. Sometimes when God shows up, we miss the miracle, because we are too busy. We are chasing after money or stuff, or we are running the kids to basketball practice, the swim meet, or girl scouts. We are trying to get ahead by going back to school, or working a second job. Sometimes when God shows up we miss the miracle, because we are too cynical, we no longer believe God does things like that in our world. Miracles are for the credulous, the dreamers, the flakes, the sky-pilots. Sometimes we miss the miracle, because God’s love is unfolding in our neighbor’s life, and we are so focused in on ourselves, we cannot see what is happening right in front of our eyes in someone else’s life.
SLIDE 12: UNDERSTANDING OUR NEIGHBOR’S NEED
Sometimes to experience the miracle we have to get outside of ourselves long enough and listen in order to understand our neighbor’s need. Like the story of the stranger who approached the pastor after the morning worship service and said, “I’d like you to pray for my hearing.”
The pastor placed his hands on the man’s ears and said a passionate and earnest prayer.
“How’s your hearing now?” the pastor asked.
Looking surprised, the man said, “Well, it’s not until tomorrow morning.”
When we presume to pray for someone else we need to know what they are asking us to pray about. Sometimes the miracle is listening long enough to know what to pray.
SLIDE 13: WHAT LIFE CHANGING EVENTS ARE YOU EXPERIENCING?
What life changing events are you experiencing? Maybe you are in the midst of a health crisis. Perhaps a friend or loved one has died. Maybe you’ve celebrated a birthday, or you’ve started a new job, or you are experiencing a change in your relationships? Whatever the nature of your life altering event pray that God might reveal to you the miracles that are happening around you. Sometimes when everything seems to be coming apart at the seams it is because something new is preparing to emerge. A crisis in our lives is like giving birth. We wait and wait and wait for a baby to come, and then labor begins. And after hours or even days of pain and exhaustion a new life emerges into the world.
SLIDE 14: THE MIRACLE OF NEW LIFE
Life changing events are like giving birth. We wait, and wait and wait for a wedding, a birth, an illness, a death, a divorce, a retirement and then we experience the pain of grief, letting go, change, the sting of healing, and if we don’t get stuck and see our way through the transition, new life emerges on the other side. If we are patient, if we pray, if we are persistent, we can experience the miracle of new life.