My Year In Review // The Highlights

I absolutely love reflecting on the “year”… both the year spent and the year upcoming.  The chance to think back upon all that happened (and didn’t happen) and to think forward about all that “could be” fills my soul with joy.

2010 was an important year… both for us as a family and for me personally.  In late ’09 we left the friendly confines of Tulsa, Oklahoma to venture out to Denver to help out our friends Michael and Lisa Gungor with the church they semi-accidentally started, Bloom, back in early ’08.  Though we felt strongly that the time was right for such a move to happen, it still came with a fair amount of fear and trepidation.  “Will we survive?” was a question that lingered ominously at the edges of our consciousness for most of late 2009 and nearly all of 2010.

We have indeed survived… and then some.  In fact, I would say that both personally and as a family, this is by far the healthiest “place” in life we’ve ever been in.  Normally we would come home to WI for the holidays and I’d feel moody, depressed, and a little out of sorts.  This year we came home and I felt joyful, full-hearted, and at ease.  We’re in exactly the place in life we need to be in, and though there’s still uncertainty in the air (actually, we live with a fair amount of uncertainty), there’s a certain “rightness” about it.  Back in seminary I heard an Old Testament scholar summarize the “big story” of the Old Testament as being “God’s people in God’s place living under God’s rule.”  This feels like THAT.  The year has simply reeked of the kindness and grace of God… evidence to us that God is decidedly “in” this.

That said, here are some highlights of the year (in no particular order):

The ridiculous kindness shown to Bloom by two Denver congregations, The Sanctuary Downtown and First Baptist, for letting us use their facilities this year at next-to-no cost.  Why they’ve been so kind to us is impossible for us to figure out.  THAT they’ve been so kind to us has never stopped astonishing.

A handful of opportunities this past year for me to preach at different churches around Denver.  What joy.

The influx of some, to put it mildly, astoundingly awesome people into our community at Bloom.  The level of maturity and strength of these people has provided me with something of a spiritual “warm blanket” as we do this work here in Denver.  I feel safe around them.  It is a joy to live life with them.

Bloom’s having enough financial strength combined with a favorable enough market in Denver for us to buy a house.  Honestly, when we left Tulsa, I was fully prepared for it to take several years for us to get in a comparable housing situation… but the stars aligned such that we were able to get into a house that beats the pants off of our Tulsa house.  It felt to me like God was saying, “Here, this is yours.  Denver is your home.  Plant yourself here and get ready to rip off 30 good years of work.”  Sounds good to me 🙂

The success of our house churches at Bloom has been something that has constantly filled my soul with hope and joy.  House churches, if you don’t know, are “middle space” type communities that emphasize intentional spiritual formation, community, hospitality, service, etc.  Anyone is welcome and each has its own distinct flavor.  Our house churches are led by and populated with – hands down – some of the most marvelous people you’re ever going to meet, and I spend at least as much time thinking about and praying for our house churches as I do anything else we’re working on as a community.  I believe we’re laying the foundation for an explosion of house churches in the greater Denver area, and I look forward to the day when Denver and its surrounded suburbs are saturated with well-led, hospitable, service-oriented, life-giving Bloom house churches.  God grant it!

The joy of undertaking a couple “longer” sermon series’ this year and seeing the fruit.  Back during Epiphany last year I did a nearly 10 week series on spiritual disciplines called “Spiritual Architecture: Practices that Sustain Faith” and then another one later in the year on the Sermon on the Mount called “When Heaven Shapes the Human Life”.  Both of them were personally enriching and challenging, and we saw some cool things happen in our community as a result.  I love the ethos that we’re forming at Bloom as a result of such forays…

Coming out of the first of those series, I undertook a book project, the rough draft of which is nearly finished.  My commitment to myself is that I work on one major book project per year during the course of my ministry, unless circumstances dictate otherwise.  Writing is pure joy for me, and I feel really privileged to be in a place where I can do it.  Moreover, I love the idea of having “living theology” come out of a congregation’s journey into God, which is what I intend my writing to be.  The book I’m working on now (“Spiritual Architecture”) comes straight out of our journey as a community back in February and March.  I can’t wait to do the Sermon on the Mount one.  And how cool will it be when, 15 years from now, we’ve got a dozen or so books as a community to show for where we’ve been together?  AWESOME!

Making more and better friends in Denver and beyond… People have heard me say this many times before, but I’ll never tire of it because it never ceases to bless and amaze me: Denver is by far the most hospitable church environment I’ve ever witnessed.  We are friends with more churches than we know what to do with, and I’m personally friends with more pastors than I know what to do with.  Moreover, Bloom is beginning to make friends outside of Denver… people who are aware of our work and prayerfully supporting it.  How in the world can I express how grateful I am for that?

Our kids (Ethan 4, Gabe 3, and Isabella 1), are totally flourishing.  Enough said.  And Mandi and I are more in love than ever.  Again, enough said.  I love these people 🙂

It’s been a good year.  God has been faithful… and blessing rests on our heads.

What do I hope for out of 2011?  Yesterday I wrote in my journal that my ache is to see the “tangible intangibles” of my life increase in 2011.  By “tangible intangibles” I mean those things that are so difficult to measure and quantify, but are so very “real” and in truth make all the difference in the world between a life that’s rich and robust and one that’s shot through with despair and darkness.  So this year, I want to…

Love God more

Present Him a “self” that’s more full of light and love and levity

Continue to nurture my family to life and health and joy

Be a better friend and family member

Bring my Bloom family even closer to the center of my affections (“you yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone”) and delight in this marvelous community enough that she begins to bear all the marks of having a pastor who labors over her in love… that is, that she herself is filled with faith, hope, and love, and that she is a community of health and strength and loving, life-giving, redeeming hospitality and welcome.  That she becomes a house of hope and healing for this city… a joyful community of hilarity and service and trust.

Take the “work of my hands” – that which comes out of my specific gifts – much more seriously, refining my abilities so that I’m able to use them with surgical precision.

Those are the things I want… God, a better self, a thriving family, healthy relationships, a congregation that’s loved, meaningful work. 2011 here we come : )

Peace to you this upcoming year.

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Advent Words 8: “Coming”

Okay okay, so it’s been a few days since I’ve posted an “Advent Words”… been a bit busy : )

The earliest Christian confessions included a line that went something like this:

He [Jesus] will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

That is to say, the earliest Christians believed that a “bedrock” bit of information about this Jesus and about their Story was that as He had once come, so he would “come again”.  Luke records at the beginning of the book of Acts this scene:

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)

That was a bitter (and confusing) pill for these guys to swallow.  As good Jews, they really had no concept for multiple “comings” of a Messiah.  History was straightforward and uncomplicated to them: We’re God’s people, we’ve fallen on hard times of late, but according to the prophets our God will arise in his strength through an ‘anointed one’ to restore this situation back to life and health.

So you can appreciate the question they posed to the resurrected Christ in Acts 1 (who had strangely not been doing anything overly-dramatic after his resurrection other than “appearing” to them every so often and “giving many convincing proofs that he was alive” – as if just SHOWING UP wasn’t enough: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  A perfectly sensible question.  This is what was to be expected.  The Messiah came in Jesus, and while to their great surprise he didn’t overthrow the corrupt religious establishment or the power of Rome, instead dying at their hands, he was now alive and certainly NOW everything would get put right… right?

And Jesus’ response is so interesting, if jarring for them: “You’re not allowed to know when all that’s gonna happen; just go and tell the world that this dead guy is alive.”

The fact of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension coupled with the concomitant fact that all had not yet been put back in it’s place forced the early Christians to reconfigure their notions of how sacred history worked.  New life and hope had spilled into the world, yes… but there was more to come.  Yahweh’s victory over the “powers” in the cross and resurrection didn’t automatically “fix” everything.  There was an in-between.  A time of waiting…  for a final incursion to make it all right.  And so the declaration: “He will come again…”

I don’t hear many messages on the 2nd Coming anymore.  But it occurs to me that it is a “peer” to the other great “dogmas” of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  Without the 2nd Coming, those are incomplete.  God’s work, while in principle accomplished in all that Jesus has done, has yet to be fully actualized in history.  The victory of God awaits a consummation.  The work is yet unfinished.  And the tension of living in a world where God has proven himself the victor “already” but at the same time “not yet” is crucial to our experience of faith.  Failing to maintain the tension is a mistake.

This past October at Bloom, during our series on the Sermon on the Mount, I challenged our congregation to take up specific prayer requests before God as a way of putting what we were encountering in the Scriptures about prayer into motion.  We wrote down short lists of things we needed to see God move in response to, and committed to praying… simply, with faith, regularly, until he acted on our behalf.  The results were astounding.  Old relationships that had gone stale and cold coming back to life.  People that were far from faith coming into real encounters with God.  Job breakthroughs all over the place.  Miraculous healing.  Financial miracles.  I mean you name it.  We had it all.  It was a beautiful season.

And yet… there was a bittersweetness to it.  One of the women who attends our house church on Wednesdays started attending Bloom back in the spring.  She’s not necessarily Bloom’s “core demographic”, but she loves us and the community loves her.  She’s had a hard past.  A VERY hard past.  And because of her past, her body is rife with pockets of deep physical pain that flares up in excruciating ways from time to time.  We’ve prayed over her plenty of times.  She’s cried out to God on her own.  And certainly all the more so during this past season we were in… and yet… the pain persists.  Her comment to me: “I’ve asked Dad so many times to take it away, and yet he doesn’t.  I’m not sure what to do with that.”

Huh.

In my own journey of faith, I’ve seen God move in countless ways to bring healing, help, hope, and breakthrough for me.  He really is “the God who heals you.”  And yet, I think what I’m becoming more and more aware of is that living in the tension between the 1st and 2nd Coming of Christ means that even though there will be many, MANY areas over which I experience God’s life and resurrection power, there will similarly be areas that await a final redemption.  I’m remembering that the Apostle Paul said that God gave him a “thorn” in his flesh that he begged to have removed… to which God simply responded: “My grace is sufficient.”

I realized this recently with respect to an old relationship.  I’ve worked hard to forgive this person.  And yet when I see them, I respond physically with the “fight or flight” emotion that is so familiar to many of us.  I HATE that emotion.  I want to be even, level, and comfortable.  I don’t want my body to respond as though I’m under threat.  Hence the laboring to forgive, to let go.

But here’s the real insight.  I’ve ASSUMED that “fight or flight” is connected to unforgiveness.  So after the most recent encounter, I took it back to prayer.  And I found myself saying these words, “God, I’m not sure why I’m responding like this.  I’ve forgiven – I really have.  I’ve let go, and I feel like my heart is healed over this.  I don’t ‘will’ bad for this person.  I ‘will’ good for them.  I really do.  I want the best for them.  What are these emotions about then?”

And as clear as day I heard the Spirit respond: “You are responding like that because you were really wounded in that relationship.  Something broke in you that is not easily ‘fixed’.  Your heart is just fine.  Forgiveness is not a ‘fix’.”

We have a hard time living with our brokenness, and reconciling that to our faith.  When I was a kid, we had a hard time reconciling physical brokenness with our faith.  We assumed that Christianity, when it was working, would cure people’s illnesses.  We rightly left that behind because of the overwhelming accumulation of “minority reports” that proved that way of thinking untenable.

Or at least we thought we left it behind.  Seems to me that most Christians, even if they’re not the charismatic variety, still (wrongly) assume that Christianity is a simple “fix” to whatever ails them.  Emotional scars.  Relational scars.  Psychological trauma.  But that is to make the same mistake that the “name it and claim it” Christians make regarding health and finances.  And the mistake is simply this: collapsing the bright and glorious future promised by the 2nd Coming of Christ into the present.  Till then, there is some pain we’re just going to have to carry, trusting that the grace is sufficient.

“But our citizenship is in heaven”, Paul writes.  “And we eagerly await from there a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”  He will come again.  That is the promise, the focal point of Christian hope.  The Return of Jesus that transforms everything, our bodies and minds included.  The Scripture teaches us that the Spirit is the one who awakens that hope in us PRECISELY by drawing attention to the fact that our world is out of joint (Romans 8).  He awakens the eschatological cry, “Abba!”.  We await a completeness not yet given.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t achieve it.  God gives it.  He will come again…

Till then, we wait.  This morning I let my longing rise to a fever pitch.  I look forward to the day when I’ll be able to love without fear.  Where all the pain and brokenness of my life in this world will be taken up, healed, and transfigured by the love of God.  The eternal kingdom.  Home.  Here.  Heaven.  Here.  He will come again.

“Come quickly Lord Jesus.”

Advent Words 7: Kingdom

Matthew recollects the story of Jesus “advent” into the world as follows:

1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. (Mt 2:1-3)

As the narrative of Matthew 2 progresses, we see Matthew moving back and forth between the two figures which cause so much dramatic tension: the “king” and the “child” (who happens to be the rightful king).  The narrative climaxes with a hoodwinked Herod furiously ordering the annihilation of all boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding area two years old and under, with Jesus and his parents narrowly escaping.

Matthew’s tale of Jesus advent is important for so many reasons.  In the first place, it reminds us that the reality about which we sing, speak, remember, and confess at Christmastime is not as air-brushed as we’d often like to think.  The first Christmas was soaked in pain and sorrow, conflict, confusion, and anxiety… as many Christmases are.

Secondly, I love this narrative because it reminds me that God gets what God wants.  He brought about the birth of the child, and arranged for his survival.  It wasn’t easy.  It certainly wasn’t some kind of “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens”, Thomas Kinkade-esque, “Your Best Life Now” tale.  But it happened.  God got what God wanted.  It seems that’s his way.

But thirdly, lastly, and what I love the most about this narrative, is that Herod feels threatened.  By a baby.  Why?  Because Herod knows what the baby represents.  Or at least what they people will MAKE the baby to represent.  The Magi come and ask, “Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?”  “Huh?” Herod must have thought.  “I’M the King of the Jews!  How can you possibly ask me that question?”  And really, it’s quite a bit of gall on the part of those Magi… march right into King Herod’s office and ask where the REAL “King of the Jews” is without thinking twice about it.

Herod, accordingly, is nervous.  “Disturbed” is the word the NIV uses.  For what happens if popular messianic expectation galvanizes around this child?  It could upset the settled order of Galilee and Judea.  Spark civil unrest.  Revolution maybe.  And what if Rome hears about it?  Will they then descend upon that region with their vast military might?  Will the Herodian dynasty come to an end as martial law is imposed?

If those were the thoughts that motivated Herod’s unrest, he was right to think them.  The galvanization of messianic hope around this little baby could and would indeed prove to be a powder keg.  But imagine it… such a small thing… a baby… born in a small town, from parents who hailed from an out of the way village… but so much anxiety for Herod and his lot.

This would not, of course, be the last time the baby would clash with the powers that be.  His life began under threat from the powers, it proceeded under suspicion of the powers, and it ended at the hands of the powers.  Power, political, religious, or otherwise, has never been particularly friendly to Jesus.  For as we learned during our Sermon on the Mount series at Bloom this fall, Jesus came to establish a new order.  He is the reality for which everything else is a sham.  And his presence is not meant to fit neatly into our established modes of being… He comes to flip the world upside down… by redefining power, redefining God, redefining forgiveness, redefining human worth.

That is to say, he is the kingdom-bringer.  Better yet, as we learned this fall, he IS the kingdom.  And established power, whenever it comes in contact with him, knows that his presence is always likely to start a revolution.  It only takes one baby and a handful of devotees.  That’s why they try to shut him down.  And that’s how it always goes.  Avalanches begin with small pockets of debris losing their grip.  Dams break when small cracks give way.  Large forests are set ablaze with single sparks.  In God’s world, it doesn’t take much.

In 1955 a black woman named Rosa parks refused to take the back seat on an empty bus in Montgomery, Alabama.  Her actions incited a period of general social unrest that ultimately led to the Civil Rights movement.

One woman

One bus

One moment

Changed the world…

One baby

One king

Another moment

Also changed the world…

How about that?  It doesn’t take much.  The Kingdom, however weak it appears (one baby, one woman), it the strongest thing in the universe.  Jesus once told a parable about the kingdom saying:

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt 13:31-32)

Small thing.  So insignificant.  But ultimately, it becomes the “largest thing”.  An encompassing reality that shades, embraces, and stabilizes our lives…

Kingdom.  HE is the Kingdom.  God give us grace to follow Him.

Advent Words 6: First Prayer

Friday is Sabbath in Arndtville, so in lieu of writing a blog, I’ll post the weekly Advent prayer from the Book of Common Prayer… which, speaking of, if you don’t make use of prayer resources to help you along in your devotional life, you’re totally missing out.  I grew up in thinking that the only prayers that were worth praying are spontaneous ones.  But spontaneous prayers can be rather flat and one-dimensional can’t they?  “Father God, I thank you that Lord Jesus  you’re so good and, Father God, we do – Holy Spirit Jesus God – pray that you’d help us Father not be so mean Lord Jesus to each other today…”

A well-written prayer, on the other hand, can illuminate the imagination and elevate the soul like few other things can.  So I make extensive use of prayer books in my devotional time.  If you want some recommendations, let me know.

Without further ado, this for the first Sunday of Advent (last Sunday) out of the Book of Common Prayer.  The words are dense and their style is probably somewhat unfamiliar to most, but I’m willing to bet that if you slow down and savor this prayer like fine wine, you’ll find in it a gateway to presence of God.  Enjoy!

Almighty God, give us grace to case away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in th elast day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Yes, grant it Lord Jesus. 

Advent Words 5: “Eucatastrophe”

The great 20th century writer JRR Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame) coined a literary term that I think is absolutely brilliant: “eucatastrophe”.  Eucatastrophe refers to a sudden, dramatic turn of events, consistent with the overall storyline, at the end of a tale that turn the plot in the protagonist’s favor.  This differs from another classic literary convention, the deus ex machina, in which something unexpected and foreign to the storyline suddenly emerges, turning the plot in the protagonists favor.  One emerges from within and is consistent.  Another is, in a way, literary laziness.

Tolkien was fond of saying that the Incarnation was the “eucatastrophe” of world history.  That is, things seemed to be going along one way, and then all of a sudden, in a way that no one expected, God broke in… and everything turned around.  This is consistent with the Jewish account of world history because, according to their poems, prophecies, narratives, and ancestral traditions, their God was active and involved (though sometimes mysteriously, conspicuously quiet), ever bent on redemption and rescue, and strangely, opaquely interested in getting inside his story somehow.

By the time of the 1st century, this beleaguered people, heirs of a rich tradition, a glorious past, and a hopeful future, must have felt like the “trail” of their story had gone cold.  That perhaps Yahweh had lost the scent.  And then… IT happened.  Advent.  God broke in.  In a way that no one expected, but that likewise changed everything.  Eucatastrophe.

Of course, THE Advent is really the en-fleshment of what is the general character of this God…  that is, he is the God of eucatastrophes.  That just when we thought the story had run out of steam, he finds new ways to burst in and infuse the plot with new life and hopefulness.  THE Advent is consistent with the tale the prophets and storytellers of old had been telling because Advent is this God’s calling card.

The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, at the beginning of his massive Theology of the Old Testament, stated that any theology that claims to draw its cues from the Old Testament must begin not with abstract metaphysical speculations about Yahweh (Is He the ultimate ground of being?  The first cause?  The unmoved mover?), but rather with the basic insight that Yahweh was first known by Israel in his doings…  God DOES.  For Israel.  Israel is the “direct object” of the “verbs” of which Yahweh is the “subject”.  God acts upon Israel for her good.  That is how she “knows” God at all.  Not by philosophical musings.  But by remembrance.  “I am the Lord… who brought you up out of Egypt.”

Accordingly, Brueggemann claims, the “first word” of Israel’s life, and consequently Old Testament theology as a whole, is a simple Hebrew word: todah – “thanksgiving”.  He writes:

I propose as a beginning point that Israel’s testimony, in which is offers its version of reality (and therefore of God), is a sentence offered as a todah.  It is a statement of gratitude and thanksgiving, offered in a confessional mode, whereby Israel expresses joy, wonder, and gratitude for a gift given or an action performed, a gift or an action that has decisively changed Israel’s circumstances.

Old Testament theology begins, therefore, with thanksgivings for the fact that Yahweh has shown himself (concretely, locally, specifically, severally) to be the Lord of the Eucatastrophe.  The Advent King.  (Now I’m getting excited.)

In the 6th century BC, a group of Jews found themselves in a place where their story had run out of steam.  During that time, one of their prophets, a priest named Ezekiel, saw this vision:

1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’” (Ez 37:1-14)

God of the Eucatastrophe.  Advent, accordingly, is our promise that everything in our lives that has gone stale and cold is a candidate for a fresh wind from God…

Give thanks to the Advent King : )

Advent Words 4: Mercy

Once upon a time, a lonely Jew toughing out life in a hard place penned these words:

Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need. – Ps 79:8

It is a truth that is sometimes distorted and other times difficult to grasp and often ignored, but nevertheless is true: we are not the only “inputs” in our lives.  As Americans we’d like to think we are.  Our John Wayne bravado deludes us into thinking that if we just work hard enough, have enough ingenuity and resourcefulness, and maybe just a touch of faith, everything will turn up roses for us.  Simplistic equations form the narrative pattern of our existence: my effort + a bit of confidence = success.

Biblical faith knows that way of thinking is a pile of manure.  The Psalmist testifies to it.  He looks around at his life, a life that was veritably in shambles, and in a moment of gut-wrenching honesty says, “God, you know this is not our fault.  Our fathers sinned.  They rebelled against you.  They made horrible mistakes.  And what’s worse, THEY weren’t the ones to suffer for them.  We were.  And are.  Their foolishness has come down on OUR heads.”

These words of course were written in and out of the Jewish exile.  Centuries of disobedience gone to seed… And now, the children’s children’s children are suffering.  “Oh God,” the Psalm opens, “the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble…”  The city had been sacked, burned, and pillaged, and the citizens had been forced to make a several hundred mile journey on foot away from their homeland.  This was bigger than one person’s failure.  And it therefore would not turn around SIMPLY by one faithful Jew working hard enough and just believing.

This Jew, among others, knows this.  And it’s that realization that drives him to make the stunning, beautiful, bold request…

“May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need.”

“Mercy” is a word that testifies to the reality that there is a divine “Other” who is not limited by the cause-and-effect system of our world and is indeed fully willing and able to intrude to change things around.  Among other things, “mercy” names the kindness that often impinges upon our existence, transcending and subverting our usual “that’s just how it goes” mentality.  Moreover, it names God’s desire to say to us, who are often heirs to sets of circumstances we didn’t want, “This isn’t your fault.  I can turn this around.  Just wait and see.”

My friend Toby has been in and out of the hospital since June of 2009.  A freak accident at work eventuated in a series of surgeries that culminated in doctors removing his tibia last week.  More surgeries and procedures have since followed, to try to halt the bleeding and remove the infection.  The intended goal is to avoid amputating his foot.  His life has been something of a living hell since at least May, when a corrective procedure went awry and stuck him in a state of semi-permanent patient care.  He’s basically been in-patient since then, waiting for things to change.  For something – ANYTHING – to happen that will get his story “unstuck”.  And meanwhile we are pleading a familiar prayer: “Lord, have mercy.”

Toby’s situation is not Toby’s fault.  He is an heir to circumstances that were beyond his control.  Decisions were made by doctors that directly impacted his life.  They made mistakes.  He reaps the consequences.  Such is life.

That’s why “mercy” is such an important word.  Mercy is God’s way of saying, “I get it.  Not your fault.  And even if and when and where it is your fault, I’m not going to condemn you to a future dictated by the constraints of the past.  I’ll turn this around.  Just watch.”

Whether you believe it or not, we live in a world that is capable of being impinged upon by Divine Kindness.  By Mercy.  That is what enables us to hope and love and believe and lean towards a brighter future… that fundamental conviction that cause-and-effect, the Lonely and Cruel Tyrant Fate, is not the Master of the Universe.  Rather, the Master of the Universe is the Lord of Mercy… who “breaks through gates of brass and shatters bars of iron”, liberating us from the damnation that is cause-and-effect thinking.

Jesus is God’s most definitive statement of Mercy.  We might even say he IS God’s mercy en-fleshed.  He is the purest and best “infringement” upon our world by God that we will ever see… he who came to liberate the captives and set prisoners free.  He is the intrusion of a better world.  The New Heavens and the New Earth.  The Kingdom Incarnate.  And he has come.  That is why at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, Mary can declare in what are possibly the most beautiful and powerful words ever written, the “Magnificat”:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”

How can she say this?  What has happened?  Have any of these things ACTUALLY taken place?  Well, yes and no.  No in the sense that they haven’t been actualized in history.  But a resounding YES in the sense that her Immaculate Conception of the Christ-child means that all of those things have now been put in motion.  Israel’s deliverance is underway.  Mercy has and will DECISIVELY TRIUMPH over the judgment the Daughter of Zion had long been mourning over.

Mercy.

One of my favorite Christmas songs captures it best:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to thee O Israel

That is mercy.  HE is mercy.  Impinging upon our taken-for-granted world, opening wide a better one, and closing off forever the path to misery and death.

Come Emmanuel.