in the desert of our choosing

I came across these lines in Psalm 81 this morning:

"I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.

"But my people did not listen to my voice;
Israel would have none of me.
So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,
to follow their own counsels.
O that my people would listen to me,
that Israel would walk in my ways!"

And I thought of the experience of Israel when they were too afraid to enter the promised land when God offered it to them. Those people never got to enter it after that. They wandered in the desert for the rest of their lives. But, still, God did not abandon them.

God was with Israel throughout their wanderings, and protected and provided and guided them. God continued to work with the people and correct them and struggle with them. They were still with God, walking with him. It's just that they never got to experience all the good that God had offered to them; their lives were much different than if they had entered Caanan.

I imagine it is much the same with us, more often than we'd like to admit. But there is comfort in knowing that we can still live with God and continue to grow in our relationship with him, even after we reject much of the perfect Christlike life he offers us.

Obviously, though, it's much better to accept.



papa panov

For worship this morning Heather read to the kids (and the parents) a Christmas story based on Tolstoy's "Where Love Is, God Is." The adaptation is by Reuben Saillens, called "Papa Panov's Special Day":

It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters.

Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone.

His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lines with one forefinger, he read again the Christmas story. He read how Mary and Joseph, tired by their journey to Bethlehem, found no room for them at the inn, so that Mary's little baby was born in the cowshed.

"Oh, dear, oh, dear!" exclaimed Papa Panov, "if only they had come here! I would have given them my bed and I could have covered the baby with my patchwork quilt to keep him warm."

He read on about the wise men who had come to see the baby Jesus, bringing him splendid gifts.

Papa Panov's face fell. "I have no gift that I could give him," he thought sadly.

Then his face brightened. He put down the Bible, got up and stretched his long arms to the shelf high up in his little room. He took down a small, dusty box and opened it. Inside was a perfect pair of tiny leather shoes.

Papa Panov smiled with satisfaction. Yes, they were as good as he had remembered— the best shoes he had ever made. "I should give him those," he decided, as he gently put them away and sat down again.

He was feeling tired now, and the further he read the sleeper he became. The print began to dance before his eyes so that he closed them, just for a minute. In no time at all Papa Panov was fast asleep.

And as he slept he dreamed. He dreamed that someone was in his room and he know at once, as one does in dreams, who the person was. It was Jesus.

"You have been wishing that you could see me, Papa Panov." he said kindly, "then look for me tomorrow. It will be Christmas Day and I will visit you. But look carefully, for I shall not tell you who I am."

When at last Papa Panov awoke, the bells were ringing out and a thin light was filtering through the shutters. "Bless my soul!" said Papa Panov. "It's Christmas Day!"

He stood up and stretched himself for he was rather stiff. Then his face filled with happiness as he remembered his dream. This would be a very special Christmas after all, for Jesus was coming to visit him. How would he look? Would he be a little baby, as at that first Christmas? Would he be a grown man, a carpenter—or the great King that he is, God's Son? He must watch carefully the whole day through so that he recognized him however he came.

Papa Panov put on a special pot of coffee for his Christmas breakfast, took down the shutters and looked out of the window. The street was deserted, no one was stirring yet. No one except the road sweeper. He looked as miserable and dirty as ever, and well he might! Whoever wanted to work on Christmas Day—and in the raw cold and bitter freezing mist of such a morning?

Papa Panov opened the shop door, letting in a thin stream of cold air. "Come in!" he shouted across the street cheerily. "Come in and have some hot coffee to keep out the cold!"

The sweeper looked up, scarcely able to believe his ears. He was only too glad to put down his broom and come into the warm room. His old clothes steamed gently in the heat of the stove and he clasped both red hands round the comforting warm mug as he drank.

Papa Panov watched him with satisfaction, but every now and them his eyes strayed to the window. It would never do to miss his special visitor.

"Expecting someone?" the sweeper asked at last. So Papa Panov told him about his dream.

"Well, I hope he comes," the sweeper said, "you've given me a bit of Christmas cheer I never expected to have. I'd say you deserve to have your dream come true." And he actually smiled.

When he had gone, Papa Panov put on cabbage soup for his dinner, then went to the door again, scanning the street. He saw no one. But he was mistaken. Someone was coming.

The girl walked so slowly and quietly, hugging the walls of shops and houses, that it was a while before he noticed her. She looked very tired and she was carrying something. As she drew nearer he could see that it was a baby, wrapped in a thin shawl. There was such sadness in her face and in the pinched little face of the baby, that Papa Panov's heart went out to them.

"Won't you come in," he called, stepping outside to meet them. "You both need a warm by the fire and a rest."

The young mother let him shepherd her indoors and to the comfort of the armchair. She gave a big sigh of relief.

"I'll warm some milk for the baby," Papa Panov said, "I've had children of my own—I can feed her for you." He took the milk from the stove and carefully fed the baby from a spoon, warming her tiny feet by the stove at the same time.

"She needs shoes," the cobbler said.

But the girl replied, "I can't afford shoes, I've got no husband to bring home money. I'm on my way to the next village to get work."

Sudden thought flashed through Papa Panov's mind. He remembered the little shoes he had looked at last night. But he had been keeping those for Jesus. He looked again at the cold little feet and made up his mind.


to the royal son

Heather and I are leading worship Sunday, still in the Christmas season. After opening with Cantate Dominum (based on the angels' song to the shepherds) I'd like to read Psalm 73, with this Taizé song as a refrain:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor!

May he live while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations!
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth!
In his days may righteousness flourish,
and peace abound, till the moon be no more!

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth!
May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust!
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!

For he delivers the needy when he calls,
the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live,
may gold of Sheba be given to him!
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all the day!
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
on the tops of the mountains may it wave;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may men blossom forth from the cities
like the grass of the field!
May his name endure for ever,
his fame continue as long as the sun!
May men bless themselves by him,
all nations call him blessed!

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth!
Amen and Amen!


da pacem

This is a Taizé song I really like, a good Christmas meditation. The words are Latin for "Give peace, Lord"; and it starts very softly, slowly building to a climax.
(Download it here)

I was also thinking of posting a song that Heather's writing with a friend, but that will have to wait until they're done working on it...


a shepherd glances

I've been pondering a Christmas haiku for this year, and I think I'm satisfied. I found this good picture to go with it, too (slightly altered). The lines are:
A shepherd glances
at the Lord's gathered subjects,
looks down, and shivers.

I was thinking of our current difficulties here, and how weak and few (and often disappointing) the followers of Jesus are. The shepherds gathered in that barn might have looked at themselves and asked, "Are we all there is?" And I think that's the constantly reoccurring feeling for Jesus' followers ever since then.

The answer, though, is no, we aren't all there is. There's much, much more.


a revelation I want to remember

One thing that has been a revelation to me recently, a surprise in the current difficult circumstances, is the opportunity to act in real, practical ways for the good of the community, while at the same time clearly (prophetically?) rejecting the path the community is choosing. This is something important, central to the Christian life, in my opinion. But very hard to actually do.

I see Jesus as the model for us. He so vigorously denounced the ways of his people at the time, the oppression of religious and state powers, the people's slavery to money and politics, their "little faith." And he avoided these ways himself, working completely outside the normal structures of his day. Needing neither money nor a political following to accomplish his purposes. Yet he did real good for the people of his community, and by this they could see that he really cared for them.

Often in the past I've gotten so frustrated by the parts of community life that I'm opposing (because I think they are not God's ways and are harmful for the community) that I can only withdraw. Hoping that it will be some kind of sign for others. But this approach does not communicate love very well, and people are more likely to feel simply rejected. It's just so hard, though, to continue to care amidst the pain, to continue to try to find ways to contribute while at the same time feeling so strongly that the current structures and practices must be rejected as un-Christlike. How could Jesus do it? How avoid getting overwhelmed by frustration and anger? How contribute practically and lovingly without becoming a cog in the machine that's grinding all of us? Do you have to be able to do miracles?

One recent insight, discovered in a moment of deep and barren emptiness, was that it's okay if our love seems to dry up in the frustration and anger. This will pass. The truth is that love—real selfless, Godly love—does not come from me anyway. God is the source. So I can count on that love, God's love, being there when I need it later. My heart might be wrung dry at the moment, but God holds a great and fathomless love always ready to provide the energy and warmth needed to do good to my neighbor when it is needed.

Another help has been the deepening of my faith in the reality of the body of Christ. No matter what the structure of the society or church around me, no matter what the ingrained faults or weight of oppression, the body of Christ exists whole and perfect even there. So I can always act in accordance with the nature of the body (which is the nature of Jesus) and expect the strength and coordination of the body to be there, supporting me. Sometimes this support can even come from the very same people who are also most central to the community's problems. God can and does use anyone.

A specific way I've seen this work out here so far: The maintenance meeting I helped coordinate went very well. And little coordinating was actually needed, the people we have (and the help they freely offered) fit quite easily with the specific practical needs we currently have. A critical need was quickly answered, and many were relieved and grateful. And this all happened completely outside the complex and long-running community reorganizing meetings (which I'm avoiding and have spoken out against). Contrasting these two meetings seemed to me to show the difference between the complex and compromising maneuverings of human politics and the simplicity of submission to the body of Christ.

I've also been encouraged to expand this asking/giving model beyond maintenance to the other various gifts in the body. (This came out of the love I was having trouble finding in myself.) I've decided to step down from leading teaching times here, to avoid imposing my criticisms (hopefully prophetic criticisms) on others who disagree. But I'm planning to use my last Sunday teaching time, on Epiphany, to have us offer our gifts to each other, our abilities and interests that might be of service to one another. Things like counseling or reconciling skills, willingness to teach or offer hospitality, etc. It will probably just serve to inform us of what everyone is willing to offer, and also help us think about what we want to offer. And it may help meet specific communal or individual needs. But the biggest gift might be opening our eyes a little more to the reality and goodness of the body of Christ all around us. A structure we don't need to build. With a mission and purpose we don't need to invent. And a Head that is not any of us.



"much goodness awaits"

"How can you say, 'We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us'?
But, behold, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie.
The wise men shall be put to shame,
they shall be dismayed and taken;
lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord,
and what wisdom is in them?

"From prophet to priest
every one deals falsely.
They have healed the wound of my people lightly,
saying, 'Peace, peace,'
when there is no peace."
Jer 8.8-11


from psalm 149

The Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the anawim with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.

Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to wreak vengeance on the nations
and chastisement on the peoples,
to bind their kings with chains
and their nobles with fetters of iron,
to execute on them the judgment written!

This is glory for all his faithful ones.


God can wait

I was thinking about writing something about waiting ('tis the season) and I came across this entry from three years ago. It's perfect for what I've been thinking recently:

My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.

But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever;
your name endures to all generations.

Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you endure;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing, and they pass away;
but you art the same, and your years have no end.
(Ps 102.11-12,25-27)

The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing;
he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands for ever,
the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
(Ps 33.10-11)

God is not threatened. His intentions and purpose are not in jeopardy. He does not fear the possibility of things spinning out of control, or falling apart, or someone taking the reins from him. He is God.

So he can wait. He can wait for us because he is not threatened by us, by our denials and rebellion, by our boasts and attempts to escape him. We cannot escape his truth. Or thwart his will. We can only thwart ourselves, and if we continue this to the end then we will simply pass away and be gone.

I need to be more consciously aware of this, and trust it more fully. I know when I lose patience with people and run away, or strike out in anger, I'm feeling threatened. I'm panicking. I'm afraid that my plans are falling apart, or I'm getting trapped, or evil is winning. I can't wait well when I don't trust well.

At those moments I very much feel my own vulnerability. My days are like an evening shadow...

I need also to feel But you, O LORD, are enthroned for ever.

I think I may be doing a little better at this now, three years later. Even in a more difficult situation. But the basic call to "wait as God waits" is still a good one that I need to be reminded of.

Maybe I'd just add that often God's waiting is an act of mercy for those involved, giving them more time to understand, and change. And then sometimes I think the waiting may already be part of God's response (we just don't see it yet), letting the wrongdoing get deeper and clearer and the consequences build and build. Until the truth is inescapable, and justice inevitable.