Father Greg Boyle is simply an amazing man. He is a Jesuit priest whose ministry is in the trenches of gang life in Los Angeles. He, affectionately known as “Father G”, started Homeboy Industries in 1988, by asking one question: “Can we improve the health and safety of our community through jobs and education rather than through suppression and incarceration?” The answer was yes.
In Father G’s book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, he makes you cry and laugh out loud with his powerful stories. One I love was when he was trying to get to a speaking engagement across town. Often he will take “homies” who are in the program to tell their stories when he travels around. So he tells of one such event where he grabbed a couple of guys to accompany him. Driving down the road, before getting on the infamous LA highway system, he notices that the car is on “E”. He says with exasperation that he’s going to need to get some gas. The young man sitting shot gun leans over to look at his gauge and says, “Oh, you’re okay, Padre.”
In disbelief, Father G says, “Huh? E means empty!” Then his young friend stares at him in utter disbelief and says, “What? I always thought it meant ‘Enough!’” While Father G loses it in laughter and beckons his young friend back to the world we all reside in, he asks the obvious next question: “If E means “enough’, what did you think “F” could possibly stood for?” Suddenly bashful, the young man eventually, meekly shared, “Finished?”
Isn’t that a hilarious reminder to Christians of how strange we truly are? Following Jesus turns our expectations upside down, nearly every time. When the lawyer wanted to justify himself as righteous - he asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” You see, he wanted to know who was outside the covenant and therefore not worthy of his “religiousness”. He was looking at E and expected “Empty” but Jesus gave him an “Enough” by defining neighbor, not by who they are, but by how we act toward them. What we all thought was an impersonal noun becomes a beautiful verb!
“Who is my neighbor?” – a question that echoes throughout history is answered, once and for all, by Jesus that, in fact, everyone is! Even the hated Samaritans as Jesus answers the lawyers question with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The question then transforms from “who is my neighbor”, to “What is my obligation to them?” Jesus’ answer is to love, love without conditions no matter who the other is for they are God’s child too.
When the world says you have “FULLfilled” your obligations and pats you on the back, Jesus says that without me - you’re “finished”! Instead, “Empty” yourself and find “enough” in Christ.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but EMPTIED himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8
YouTube celebrity and vlogger, Casey Neistat’s recent Samsung commercial (check it out below) during the Oscars grabbed me with his intro line “Let me introduce … the rest of us”. Armed with phones and social media accounts, people are telling their stories. Being creative, “… not because we have to. We create because we love to.” That, right there, is the divine impulse of creation: love.
God creates because God loves. Period. But that is only the beginning of the story. God’s creative love sparks possibilities of redemption, forgiveness, mercy, and grace that surpass any of our understandings. God has used less that “our phones, duct tape, parking lots, and guts” to share a love story too big for any production company to convey. When the religious elite and the Roman soldiers said that Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God – he revealed God’s greatest act of love - “Watch Me”. As we prepare for the season of Lent, let us keep our eyes on Christ and watch a love story unfold for all of us. Can we do this, model this, become this? No, not by ourselves we can’t. Experiencing the love of Christ means that you can “Do What You Can’t.”
Henry David Thoreau famously observed, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Do we see this at some level every day? Do we feel it from time to time? Desperately seeking fulfillment, yet quietly going about one’s daily life. Keeping your head down, not rocking the boat, or making a fuss. It is a code of silence that has always plagued human hearts.
Advent reminds us that we have a powerful peace in knowing Emmanuel, God is with us! Advent steers us toward our solemn responsibility to break this code of silence and any other codes that signal it is still "business as usual." No, God is doing a new thing in our midst, and we need to live that out in “Loud Exclamation!” Calling people’s attention to the mission of Christ - bringing eternal peace to his creation. Do you know this peace? Do you know only moments of quiet desperation? This Christ child, born into this world in the humble and desperate circumstance of an animal barn hears your quiet plea. He knows you and loves you and wants you to desire his ways for your life because they lead to the abundant life. That starts with the peace of the shared relationship with God.
Thoreau also wrote, “… if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” Imagine how much greater your “success” could be if we adapted this wisdom to include God – advancing in the direction of God’s dreams, living the life which God imagines for us, what might unexpected “success” might we find there? My prayer for you is that you might have a confident peace giving you the courage to live … truly live a life of loud exclamation!
“Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God!’”
The scriptures are full of stories that that made visible, to sensitive observers, the miraculous power of God. Upending the natural order of this world producing decay and leading to death, miracles bring renewal and life. Advent is a time of miracles and during this sacred time we prepare to celebrate again the miracle by which all others are measured: the coming together of divine word and human flesh, the grandest elevation of the human condition imaginable! Perfecting it with possibility and connecting through it to each of us, Jesus of Nazareth is the complete disclosure of God’s heart.
For Christians, this is not hard to acknowledge the unique nature of these events in history. More difficult to grasp is that we are given the power to become miracles ourselves! To make visible, in the life of another, the healing power of God. That is the very definition of miracle. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we are a people of miracles (bringing renewal and life)! Ponder what great good you can do today and resolve not to wait a moment longer to do it.
Everyone says they want “peace on earth.” But do they? Do we? I shudder as I ask myself, “Do I?” If I do, indeed want there to be peace in our world, then I need to start somewhere. I need to start with me.
In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. We are called to create the peace we seek through praying for our enemies, loving even them! Not belittling them or continuing the cycle of hatred that inevitably leads to violence. In the opening of this “Sermon”, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” That is the vocation of God’s children, to make peace. And we start by making peace within ourselves (often our greatest enemy).
Recently I came upon this powerfully moving poem by David Whyte, which I feel captures the challenge of beginning the peace making process within ourselves and gives a hopeful reminder that we can begin that work right now … where we are standing (or sitting) … this very moment. Within the ground we occupy. With the questions that inhabit our minds. In the voices we follow. Finding our voice singing in harmony with the Prince of Peace, so we can truly let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!
START CLOSE IN - David Whyte
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way to begin
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
We say it every Sunday. I said it today many times during our "Passing of the Peace" portion of the worship service. The initial line is"Peace be with you.." The response is oftern, "and also with you.". If you are enterprising, you might say, "May the peace of Christ be with you ..." (I think you get my drift. Feel free to put your own spin of things!)
I enjoy this part of the becasue we get up and move around and make the effort to greet one another in a very intentional way. Sharing the peace of God. Does that mean we always feel at peace when we do it? No, although I will only speak for myself here. For me, it isn't about speading my peace, bu t that of Christ, the Prince of Peace.
This Sunday, we come to the second week of our Advent journey, waiting with grand expectations for the birth of Christ. This week, we light the Peace Candle. So, what is peace for us? Is peace the abscence of conflict and quiet moments in our busy lives that are seen as refuges? Is it "getting away for it all"? Is it "peace and quiet"? I would like to suggest that the Hebrew understanding of Shalom is most helpful in oour quest to live out the peace that Jesus lived out. Shalm is the peace that results from a right relationship with Yahweh. The confidence and security that we know that God is present with us through all the different times in our lives.
Jesus' peace offered a challenge to the status quo and, as history constantly tells us, the status quo will always put up a fight to maintian it's power and privilege over us. Jesus audaciously offerred an alternative to the status quo of this world. He offers Himself. All of him. And is seeking all of us to respond with our whole being, belonging to God. A relationship. A Shalom that surpasses all our understanding. A deep and abiding peace resonating and growing. Remember john 15:5 - "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." My prayer, this week, for you is that this divine relationship impact everything you do in order that 'Peace be with you."
"As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love." - John 15:9
What is the Kingdom of Heaven like? Let me tell you. It's like when you get a text from the babysitter saying that your daughter can't find her retainer anywhere in the house. You get home and search and find nothing. The next morning you realize that the paper bag she took her lunch in the previous day on her field trip does not have her name on it. All is lost. Calls are made to the orthodontist. A budget reassessed. A cloud looms. Then when you get home you discover the retainer in her mouth!!!! How can this be??? It awaited her in her cubby at school. How? Who knows, but the weight is lifted, burden discarded. Rejoicing and celebration commences. That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. #TheParableOfTheLostRetainer
I recently saw a child's T-shirt that said, “Color My World with Hope” with all kinds of rainbows on it. In this Advent season, that got me wondering, what does hope look like? How do we comprehend it, notice it, color it?
For the prophet Isaiah, Hope looked like Yahweh. In Isaiah 2:1-4, I often like to focus on the image of “swords being beaten into plowshares” as a beautiful picture of serenity and peace. But what comes before that? In this passage God’s judgement precedes peace, not after. Isaiah’s vision is not about Zion subduing the surrounding peoples militarily, but on hailing the special nature of Zion precisely because that is where God resides, with God’s people. God’s presence is attractive and draws them there. It is God’s presence which forever changes hearts and history, bringing love, instruction, judgement, and peace. Hope looks like Yahweh.
Let us, this Advent Season as we prepare again for the coming of the Christ child, see again with new eyes what true Hope looks like. Let us not be drawn for what this baby can do for us in the future, but simply by who he is now. We, in turn will be changed. Our history taking a new path as we realize that Hope looks like God Incarnate. Can we color our world with that hopeful message?
(I’m a little late with this reflection, but I “hope” you can forgive!)
When I was a hospice chaplain I had the priviledge of ministering to many war veterans, I was once told a story about a ship that lay at anchor a few hundred yards offshore Okinawa in the East China Sea. The memory recounted the tropical sun glistening off her battered white superstruction. From her mast a large Red Cross flag waved in the wind. Printed on her bow in large black letters was the name: USS HOPE. It was a Navy Hospital ship, well remembered by many wounded combat veterans of World War II. This ship, unlike other Navy hospital ships, were intended for triage and evacuation. Transporting wounded soldiers after primary care had been given to other ships or bases.
The “Okinawa Operation” in particular was very dangerous arriving just after a bitterly contested battle for the island. Over the following month, the USS HOPE shuttled the wounded from the island to the relative safety of US installations in Saipan. Despite her clear markings and being unarmed, she was attacked many times. I was told of the screams of the wounded and the stoic suffering in silence aboard her decks. To all the wounded, the USS HOPE was more than a name, it was respite from the horrors of war, hope of relief from pain, the gift of healing given by dedicated nurses and doctors, the glimpse of their path home.
Hope is a word heard every day in normal conversation. We so often mistake it with having a wish. We hope to pass a test, get a new job, get a Black Friday deal on a television … but hope, real hope is so much more than wishing for something.
Advent is a time for Christians to reflect upon our true hope. Found in God’s presence with us, God’s Messiah, in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel. A real hope we can cling to when pain and difficulty come to each of us, where our agonizing screams and silent sufferings are heard. Where we are known and loved no matter what! A real hope that can empower and embolden us to live a life of sacrifice and service, knowing that this brings pleasure to God! It is my hope that in our Advent waiting, we might be the evidence of God's hope in the world for others.
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – Andy Dufresne, Shawshank Redemption
The Gospel of Matthew begins its Christmas story not with the familiar “Once Upon a Time”, but with an ancient resume, his genealogy. Unlike a modern resume in our individualistic culture that lists what we alone have accomplished, a genealogy of that time acknowledges that who we are is in large part a result of our family background. We don’t live in a vacuum; our families heavily influence who we are and who we become. These genealogies (common during that time) were attempts to demonstrate one’s significance and character by listing those important people who came before. What is interesting about Jesus’ resume is that it lists 5 women. This was unheard of at the time since women didn’t have any legal standing and by all intents and purposes treated like property in the first century. Those women listed are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (although her name is not listed, she is indicated as “the wife of Uriah”), and Mary.
What’s even more interesting are the stories around the three of these women. Tamar was prostitute, Ruth was a foreigner, and Bathsheba the wife of another man. Wrap you mind around that for a second … Jesus’s resume listed a prostitute, a foreigner, and a woman who participated in adultery. God flips our expectations of who has value and welcomes all into his family, quite literally. When we want to judge others for the mistakes they make or because of whom we think they are, God welcomes them, no matter who the world says they are.
This “resume” also tells us that the Christian life is not about good advice, but about “good news!” Some would argue that if only you do certain things and live in such a way, you will gain salvation. But the follower of Christ knows that this just isn’t so. David, the greatest King of Israel is listed in the genealogy, but his most appalling act is alluded to in his sending Uriah to the front lines of a battle where he would most likely die, so that he could take Bathsheba as his wife. This is certainly not advice that should be taken. The good news for us is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you can always be met by the grace and love of God. You can be in the family! That is how Matthew starts his Christmas story and its Good News indeed!
Painting by Merle Hugues, "Ruth in the Fields" (1876).
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)