What I’ve learned so far, Part 5: I am an evangelical, but not an Evangelical

One of the great gifts of being a Baptist in an Episcopal world is that these two years have provided me the opportunity to refine my understanding of what I believe and how I live into my faith.   If you had asked me to list what I expected to learn during my months of study before I started, I would never have said these words:  that I would come to a better understand that I am and always have been an evangelical Christian.

It turns out that, in light of the events of this week regarding World Vision, this is a very, very important theological understanding to grasp. But here is what I know:  there evangelicals and then there are Evangelicals,  I am an evangelical.

Even with this clarification, that is often a shocking thing to say among the progressive wing of the Baptist polity.  In 21st century America, our image of an evangelical Christian is not a pretty one, made even worse by events like World Vision’s reversal. The simple fact that the term was adopted by a political movement that had a particular flavor of religious expression as one of its organizing principles has done serious damage to our corporate understanding of the theological meaning of the word.

For quite a few years now I have been waging what has often felt like a one-woman campaign to rehabilitate this word.  Just ask anyone who reads the listener mail at NPR — I’ve written more than a few notes about that networks consistent misuse of the word on air (I wrote to them because I thought there was a chance they might listen).  In all that push back, I was running on instinct.  Now, I am armed with history and language.

Like many words in our language, evangelical has more than one meaning — not just the one assigned by demographers, politicians, and journalists, and it can best be understood by returning to the beginning.  This word comes from an ancient Greek root: “evangelical” means simply “to the good news.”  New Testament authors used it specifically to express the salvation that came from learning about Jesus the Christ, for example in Mark 8:35:  ”For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”  The word we translate as gospel is, in the original Greek εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion, or latinized, evangeluium), the root of our word evangelical.

Please note that there is nothing in this definition about excluding others because they do not agree with you.  There is also nothing in this definition that says once you have heard the Good News, you will have all the answers and only your way is the right way.  The word Gospel is not synonymous with the actions of groups popular claiming the Evangelical label in our country today.

The beginnings of evangelicalism are decidedly Anglo-American — and considerably less organized, more theological and less judgmental than the “movement” today.  The first stirrings began spontaneously  in the community at Northampton, MA, and the theology was first showcased in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley sarah-pierrepont-edwards(and his brother Charles).  These men (and in the case of Jonathan Edwards, his wife) began to preach and write about the importance of a personal experience of and relationship with God and his son Jesus Christ, that such an experience and relationship is known and grows through the study of Scripture, and that no authority structure is needed to mediate or explain that relationship for us.

To say that you are an evangelical in this most original sense is to say that you believe in grace and the accessibility of grace to all.  To say that you are an evangelical, to stand with Edwards and Wesley, is to say that the term applies to the relationship between you and your God, that it speaks to your experience of God…not your experience of your fellow human beings.  Oh, it does indeed inform how you live in community and how you respond to humanity, but if you are responding in the confidence that grace is available to all who will partake you may not be so quick to exclude and hurt.

In its own way, this original evangelical impulse was a direct response to the closed communities of the more Calvinist congregations of the early American settlements.  The idea of election takes a heavy blow when the universal access to and experience of personal grace becomes a possibility.  And the accessibility of such grace means that no matter what human organizations do, it cannot be interrupted.  Someone may possibly keep you from a specific job, but they cannot keep you living a life in relationship with God.

You see, I am an evangelical — that’s with an “e” not an “E”.  And while I haven’t been afraid to say it for some time, now I am ready to shout it from the roof tops — with its proper meaning, of course. Maybe it is a time for a “new evangelicalism”.  I am definitely not the kind that would be welcome at World Vision, in so many ways.

At the root of the evangelical personal impulse is a push towards change and an acceptance of diversity.  If we do indeed experience God’s grace and love through our humanity, then the expression of that grace will be different for each person, in each time and place.  But I simply cannot accept the premise that, in experiencing that divine relationship, the response will be fear, intimidation, and exclusion.  Those things simply cannot be of the God I know.

I am not naive about this.  I realize that that words and in particular words that label have multiple meanings.  But I stand for the most pure understanding of terminology (this is probably why I study original languages like Hebrew).  There will always be those around me who cringe when they hear this word, who would never use it to describe themselves and their beliefs.  

To my Episcopal friends, I say thank you, because in studying with you and knowing you I have come to understand much about the essence of my faith.   But I also say, be careful how you use this word.  I am not alone in the category that the Pew Center for Religion would count as evangelical.  We grow in numbers as we return to a clear and careful understanding of just what that word means.   And the real meaning has nothing to do with donations and politics.  It is all about faith.

I learned these things studying with you.  And I did not learn these things in a theology class.  I learned them in a Church History class, one that frankly I didn’t want to take but that I needed in order to have the right credits with which to graduate. Sometimes doing what is required brings the greatest reward.  For this, I am grateful.

Oh, and in case I haven’t told you…I am an evangelical.



Today is my birthday.  We won’t discuss how many of those there have been, but it is safe to say that this particular birthday should be special.  It is a birthday that very well might not have happened.  Or certainly might have happened in a very different way than finding me in the midst of my too-too-busy schedule running to that finish line known as graduation.

I might not have been here to say:  I’m healthy (even if I can’t really say that I’m happy) and moving and exercising and learning and loving and doing all the things that make up a life.

And yet, I feel no desire, frankly no ability, to celebrate this milestone.  It is snowing outside — again — but that isn’t the reason.  I am beyond stressed and grumpy and no, it wasn’t that much fun to spend most of yesterday preparing to have a dental implant to replace the tooth knocked out birthdaybeagle Beagleduring my surgery.  I know from my frame of mind, from my discomfort with my life, from almost everything about me right now — I am still in recovery.  My body is in good shape, but my spirit has not caught up yet.  And right now it doesn’t have time to catch up.

I have not reached the wonderful place of another friend whose birthday is this week (I know so many people with birthdays in the tail end of February).

Someone very wise said to me yesterday, maybe it is all still just too close.  I think that that is true; in the course of walking through the events of last year I was forced to make myself vulnerable in so many ways — to strangers, to loved ones, to my God.  And if you know me at all, vulnerable is not my usual color (at least in what I present to the world).  I lost some things:  I lost the feeling that I knew myself; I lost the confidence I had in my connection with my body, hard won through years of therapy and years of musical study.  I lost some things it was good to lose:  I lost some of my ability to power through a situation on sheer force of will, among other things.  And I gained other things:  I learned what it was like to have a heart that pumps blood the way it should, I developed a stamina for exercise that was previously unknown to me.

While all those things are true, and while my friends statement about all these changes being still too close, I have another theory for my current malaise.  The many months of fear and worry leading up to the surgery culminated in one, great, life-changing moment which until just recently I could not describe.  It led me to a moment in time, probably no longer than a few hours at most, in which I experienced what the mystics would call true soul freedom.  While I will remember many things about the events of 2013, emblazoned on my psyche until the day I pass from this earth will be those moments sitting in the pre-surgical area, with two people more dear to me than I can say, in the total presence of my God.  And there was nothing else but love.

At that moment, there was no reason for fear, the next hours would be what they would be.  There was no room for human fear, no room for doubt, no room for attempts to control.  And somehow, this truly directive personality managed to live into that.  It was a moment of giving it over to God, a time of total peace.

And now?  Well, I think Emily Dickinson says how I feel right now better than I possible can:

Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven?
Did I sing—too loud?
But—I can say a little “Minor”
Timid as a Bird!

Wouldn’t the Angels try me—
Just—see—if I troubled them—
But don’t—shut the door!

Oh, if I—were the Gentleman
In the “White Robe”—
And they—were the little Hand—that knocked—

I AM grateful to be here, to celebrate this birthday probably more healthy than I have ever been.  I am grateful for the love and friendship that surrounds me.  I might even manage to say that I am grateful for the pretty snow that doesn’t cause too much chaos.  But if you meet me today or some day soon and you look at me and say, she doesn’t seem happy, just know this:  I now live every day with the first hand, experiential knowledge that I have not grown into the relationship with my God that is possible.  Because that way of being was shown to me that day in September.  And right now, I am very uncomfortable with that knowledge.

On this birthday I am experiencing growing pains more painful than anything in adolescence, more painful than any before in my life that I can remember.  But each and every day, when the pain is at its worst, I remind myself of what I know to be the truth of everything I believe:

This is the day the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

I have life, I have breath…all for a reason.  And when I finish all these papers maybe I will know what that is…

Circles, lines and time….Christmas Day 7

Yes, I did not write while I was travelling.   Daily writing did serve its purpose — I was able to get my work done and submitted; so as this year and this time of rest draw to a close, I am picking up the digital pen again, because I have a lot of writing ahead of me these next days and months.

To prepare for the work and the new year ahead, I spent my vacation reading a book recommended to me over a year ago – Receiving the Day by Dorothy C. Bass.  I could not have chosen a more wonderful book to read as I try to wrap my brain about my post-surgery life and thereceivingtheday opportunities that lay before me.

The book is a wonderful reminder about the gift of time and, to put it bluntly, the many ways in which we misunderstand that gift and squander it.  Oh yes, and some ways we might be able to change that, at least in our own lives.  If you are interested in these questions, you should read it yourself…much of the text is beautifully written, inspirational prose that just can’t be accessed any other way.

Two perspectives offered by Bass seem particularly appropriate for all of us on this day leading up to New Year’s Eve — two perspectives that have been rummaging around in my psyche ever since I read them.  The first is the statement that the time unit we call “the day” is the unit dictated by nature as well as by Scripture (Gen. 1:4-5):

And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Taken simply, the text acknowledges the simple rotation of the Earth between darkness and light that we call a day.  And as Bass points out, it is the one unit of time that is not really up for debate.  Minutes, hours, weeks — these are human constructs.  But a day, that’s real.  We do not schedule the sun’s motion (and even when we try, with ideas like Daylight Savings Time, we can only alter the shape of the day a little).  Yes, we can choose when to start counting that day — for example, an Old Testament day began at sunset not at some constructed time called “midnight” — but ultimately the shape of a day belongs to creation.

Another unit of time (the one we are focusing on today and tomorrow), the year, is also natural in its own way — a year is made up of seasons of days, and its progression follows the tilts and turns of the earth through the seasons and changes of the passage of days…until it comes right back to the place where we as human beings decided it started.  Bass suggests that the year is a circle, not a line, the Earth and its motion returning us to the same place over and over again in a kind of completeness.  If you take these circles, each with their slight differences, and lay one year on top of another, you begin to form a line, a line that “runs from long ago toward a distant future.”  I can’t help but think of the lyrics “The Windmills of Your Mind” — like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel.

There is much more in Receiving the Day to help you consider your use of the gift of time in 2014 and beyond, and in particular the ways in which we can all make a little more space to receive the holiness of the gift of time that comes when you can step away from the secular clock that runs this world and embrace the time that God created for us.

For me, after a year in which my concept of time has been totally up-ended, the reminder that the only “unit if time” that isn’t some human creation is comforting.  The day ahead of me is the day that I have…I cannot afford to waste any portion of it by lack of intentionality; to do so is to waste the divine gift in my hands and to ignore the rhythm of life as it was created.  Likewise, in the view that the collection of days we call a year, has its own pattern — that if I just let it, it will return me to this new place that is also old, so that I may pick up the next day and use it wisely, at least as long as I have that opportunity.

At the very beginning of her book, Bass reminds us that “we live not outside and above time but within it (pg. 2).”    And she also reminds us that “living truthfully, and making the best of the time we have, means acknowledging that both the outcome of our efforts and the length of our lives are beyond our control (pg. 10).”

“Time is not our enemy, nor is it a hostile place from which we must flee.  It is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God (pg. 11),” says Bass, and I believe it…I know it to be true as I read these words.  ”And to know time as a gift is to recognize time as the setting within which we also receive God’s other gifts, including the fruits of nature and the companionship of one another (pg. 11)”, she continues.  Time speaks to the mystery of the incarnation, and to the reality of living in community.

As we come to the end of our calendar year 2013, I have to work to keep myself from saying good bye and good riddance to what has been a complicated, frightening, and ultimately rewarding year in my life.  It is very hard to embrace all of the events and moments of this year as important parts of my living out the journey of faith that I call my life.  But Receiving the Day helps me with that task. And I know that these words and this remembrance will help me as I move into the next circle in that line of many circles.

May 2014 bring you much joy and much aliveness as you walk through the dark and the light of your days. And here’s hoping that we meet back here next “year” at the beginning of yet another circle together.



Lions, lambs, cows and bears…Advent 2013 Day 21

Lately, I’ve been introduced to an interpretative school known as the canonical approach to biblical interpretation.  In the canonical method of reading, the Scripture is treated not as some source document to be picked apart and dissected by scholars of all kind, but as a canon of writings that together talk of the experience of people across the ages as they try to live together in a community of faith.

There is much that the scholars can say about this text, as there is most of the text in Isaiah, but sometimes you simply have to surrender to the beauty of the poetry and of the metaphors used to carry a message of hope across the ages.  And that is all I can really hear as I read this passage tonight:

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Volumes have been written over these words and their meaning — the meaning for the continued kingship of Israel, does it or does it not foretell the coming of the Christ-child, what are the links to Lion-and-Lamb-lie-down-together-300x157Sumerian mythology that came before, where does this text fit in the cycle of Exodus-King-Exile-Return that tells the stories of the beginnings of our faith.

But tonight, in the waning days of Advent, all I can see are the animals…the lion with the lamb, the cows and the bears, the kid and the calf…all of these unlikely friends at peace with one another…waiting for a the little child that will lead them.

I hear the quiet, I hear the peace…I see the possibility:  when the lions inside of me can lie down with my inner lamb; when things and people that are so different on the outside can learn to live together in community and cooperation.

On this night when the world around us is so troubled…when many of us are so troubled within…maybe we can learn something about being in this world together, if we just look to the lions and the lambs in Isaiah 11.


With what shall I come before the Lord? Advent 2013 Day 20

Little drummer boys, kings, shepherds — on that night of nights they all ask the question that each and everyone of us asks with every moment that we draw breath as part of God’s creation (whether or not we know we ask):  with what shall I come before the Lord…

Micah 6:6-8

6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

I’ll admit it…this is one of my favorite texts in the Old Testament, a stirring call to what is required of me as a person of faith.  But again, these are beautiful words taken out of context so often — for if open your Bible and read all of Chapter 6.  If you do, you see that these amazing words are really a rhetorical question posed by God in despair, despair at the failures of the people of Israel to understand the simple, basic, requirements of worshiping Him.

And if you read the entire book of Micah (it is short, after all), you will see that in the words of these prophecies, neither judgement nor hope stands alone.  The future foretold here cannot happen without the cycle of judgement and change; it cannot come to be without the kind of overcoming of keep-calm-and-walk-humbly-with-god-2obstacles and failings that is part of true justice and true peace.  And most of all, it cannot come without compassion and forgiveness. In the prophecies of Micah, the call is to justice but it is also a call to worship, maybe even to contemplation (“walk humbly with your God”).

It is, after all, about remembering…remembering who God is, remembering who we are in relationship to God, and remembering what that relationship compels us to do as we move through the world.

Not waiting, not presents like myrrh and frankincense…remembrance, acknowledgement, self-realization, and action.  That is what we require as we come before the Lord.

Choose this day whom you will serve…Advent 2013 Day 19

My first thought when I saw this listed as the passage of the day was — really?  Joshua?  Advent? But it really turns out to be an inspired choice for an Advent reading (hah).

Joshua 24:14-15
 “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

What a beautiful injunction to all the faithful at any time.  And such well-known words.  But of course, the two things they teach you when you learn to read the Bible in a “more scholarly” way are:  1) don’t take things out of context, and 2) always define the boundaries of your passage carefully.

With those two pieces of advice in mind, I picked up my Bible and re-read Joshua 23 and 24 together; here is the story of Joshua, after all the battles, in his very old age, reminding the Israelites of all that they had accomplished in God’s name and reminding them of their ongoing obligations under the covenant with God. And as always, reminding the recalcitrant Israelites not to stray from the God who loved them. Some scholars consider the passage as ancient Hebrew poetry; but the form of the rhetoric offered is not that important.

The Joshua Roll...a Byzantine illustrated manuscript

The Joshua Roll…a Byzantine illustrated manuscript

What is important is the message — the message is one of gratitude, of loyalty, of faith, and the extreme power and risk of believing in community…because if you keep reading in verses 16-25, you hear the powerful response of the assembled people:

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! 17 It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. 18 And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God.”

And if we follow Chapter 24 to its end, we watch as Joshua writes the covenant and the rules for the people and they all agree to put aside their idols and worship the Lord.  And then, his work done, Joshua dies.

What I truly love about the Hebrew Bible stories is the way they tell timeless truths as amazing stories.  And what we see here is the moment of choice…that moment of choice each and everyone of us must make every day.  Will we serve the Lord this day?  Will we come forward and be known?

But we today must make another choice when we read these words — not to use them to exclude or damage another, nor to create some sense of security for ourselves and our beliefs.  How often have you heard the words…”but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” used with a sense of smugness, a sense of superiority, a sense of my-tribe-is-better-than-your-tribe.

The choice to be made is not just the choice to serve the Lord; that choice we have to make every single moment of our lives in the tiny decisions and the large ones.  But if we make that choice over and over again, we must also choose to allow others the right of choice — their own choices, in their own way.

In Advent, it isn’t just about waiting for something to happen.  We have to choose  to see.  Ours is not a passive faith; the relationship with our God is not a one way relationship.

Choose this day who you serve — a particularly important question in a season and in a culture in which we are called to serve many other gods at the expense of the One.

For me, I and my house will serve the Lord.  At least that is the answer today…but I’m ready for it when the question comes again tomorrow.

Patiently…Advent 2013 Day 18

One of my favorite pieces of music for this season is a work by Camille Saint-Saens called the Oratorio de Noel.  I was lucky enough to perform it a couple of times; it doesn’t get nearly as much performance as Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, probably because it is in truth most suited to the kind of worship experience you have at a candlelit midnight service.  It is a piece of music that beautifully captures the sense of peace that we would all like to feel at that moment christmasoratoriowhen we meet the Christ for the very first time, over and over again.

In this work, I get to sing a short little aria, no. 3 “Expectans (Patiently)”, with a text combining  Psalm 130:5 and 69:16  ”I waited with longing for the Lord, and he turned to me.”   Ever since I read our passage from James this morning, I just can’t get that music out of my head:

James 5:7-10

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

James speaks to us across the ages about a different kind of waiting, because by the time in which he wrote the world had fallen apart around the believers and they were waiting for that second coming of the Christ, the more “end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it” kind of coming.

And yet the plea for patience is the same as during that first Advent season, the time between the announcement by the Angel Gabriel to the young and frightened Mary and the actual birth of the baby that would change everything.   The plea is the same, but the plea is more urgent in tone.

Today, our plea for patience is even more urgent and so seldom not heard at all…patience is not built into our culture.  Things move fast, people judge one another right and left (and think they are perfectly justified in doing so), we rush, we multitask.

Each and every day, I find myself yearning for that beautiful sense of quiet and peace that comes when  I sing those words: “Patiently have I waited for the Lord (the singable translation), not just in this complicated season.  And I find myself asking, what distinguishes that moment from all others?

And the answer?  The answer is that in that moment, when everything comes together, I experience peace and knowing….I think that is called faith, maybe?

So be patient, yes; wait, yes; but above all know

I know that I will not get this exactly right, but I am going to give it a try because these are words that stick with me in the darkest of times and words that contribute to my remembering that I know. As we celebrate the table of Jesus in my community, after our confession of sins (which is usually private and in silence), our pastor says the most beautiful words I have ever heard:  ”And now, know that you are loved and forgiven.”  And every time she speaks them, I also hear, “and welcomed, and known.”

There is comfort in knowing, there is a gift in knowing others, and the greatest gift of all is in knowing the Jesus for whom we wait.  Patiently.  While still knowing.

Praise, praise and more praise…Advent 2013 Day 17

I’m sitting here at my computer, letting the past few days unwind and thinking what a long road I’ve traveled to get to this moment, the end of a semester interrupted by surgery and recovery and changes of all kind.  But I made it…and maybe I can get back to something a little more normal…at least for me.

And so I think it is right and fit that I should end this day with our reading — Psalm 8, the very first hymn of praise in the Book of Psalms:

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,to silence the enemy and the avenger.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The beauty of unfettered praise, that is what Psalm 8 is all about.  And our text today is the only hymn of praise in the biblical text that is composed completely as a direct address to God.  And thispsalm-8is not just about seeing God in the sunset — this is nature and all the things of the world in witness of God’s greatness.

Personally, I don’t spend enough time in praise and I often feel that we do not spend enough time praising God in worship.  Being Baptist, I lean towards the sin and confession of sins side of the equation.  And then there are all those complications with the word praise — where its association with “praise bands” and “praise music” makes it, in some worship circles, one of those words you are not quite comfortable using.

But today, where I sit, praise is in order.  Praise for health, praise for safety, praise for a good outcome in a difficult situation, praise for completing a semester that might never have happened without God’s help.

So today, I will praise with the words of Psalm 8.  Thanks be to God.

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened…Advent 2013 Day 16

Those are the words I am most familiar with from our passage today because with any luck I have an opportunity or two to sing them each holiday season.  Because of that, I tend to think of them as a stand-alone prophecy, but they are not.  They are part of a long litany of transformation through faith:

Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,*
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,*
but it shall be for God’s people;*
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I know now that the glories of the transformation foretold by Isaiah can really only be understood when you have seen the land for which they are foretold…after spending days on a bus driving through the deserts of Israel and Judah the idea that the crocuses will bloom and the waters break watersatdanforth, well, the contrast means more.  It means more when you have turned a corner from dry, barren rocks and seen the Jordan river flowing ahead of you with its little stripe of green fertility growing along its banks;  it means more when you have gone from dry hills to the lush green that surrounds the waters at Dan.

And it means more when you have been through a year like I have this year.  Whoever actually wrote down these words of Isaiah, I thank you.  I thank you because each year at this time when I am tired and cranky and just want this season to gone and done for another year, I get the chance to read you (or sing you) and remember the glory that is already hear, if, like the blind, I just let my eyes be opened.  I am transformed like the desert, if I will but know it.  I have joy and gladness, if I will but embrace it.

One more to go…Advent 2013 Day 15

Sometimes, when you set a challenge for yourself like my Advent writing challenge, you have days, well, when you just don’t have anything to say…but then you have to write something anyway.

Today is the third day of Advent and in my community, this is the day we light the candle of Joy.  I will freely admit that I am feeling no joy right now.  I am living with the emotional after effects of serious heart surgery.  Add to that a bought of seasonal Grinch-ness and the need to finish a paper from a class that I finished before the surgery, and well, I would say that today I am running on empty.  So please forgive me if I identify a little-too-much with the cranky Jesus in our passage today:

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah* was doing, he sent word by his* disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers* are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet?* Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

John’s questions make me think a little about Thomas later on in our story — I mean, after all, wasn’t John a relative?  Both young men were born in sacred circumstances; both births foretold by the Angel Gabriel; both having a mission laid out before them by God?  I mean, weren’t they on the same track?  Why then would John have to send messengers to see what was happening?

Or, did he not believe…even, did he not know?  I have often wondered…how much did Jesus know about what lay ahead of him and, if he did not always embody the knowledge of God’s plan in a conscious way, when did the path become clear to him?  Or was he like the rest of us, with some preparegood days and some bad, just trying to find that next right step as he stumbled toward a still small voice, beckoning him onward?  Could he really see the plan or was he as in the dark as the rest of us?

What if all we ever have is the knowledge that a messenger has been sent ahead to prepare the way for us?  That promise doesn’t even come with a map, frankly — we might not go the right way.

As I said, today I am identifying with cranky Jesus (and don’t be shocked because I called him that, since if you have read the Gospel accounts you know that sometimes Jesus is cranky; sometimes even angry), but even now I know that I have to trust that the messenger has been sent to prepare the way.

Wherever that is.  Whatever it is.