December 31, 2010

Godly whiffs....

A conversation in an old book, between a vicar and a young woman, told in her words:

“How the intelligent young do fight shy of the mention of God! It makes them feel both bored and superior.”

I tried to explain: “Well, once you stop believing in an old gentleman with a beard …. It’s only the word God, you know – it makes such a conventional noise.”

It’s merely shorthand for where we come from, where we’re going, and what it’s all about.”

“And do religious people find out what it’s all about? Do they really get the answer to the riddle?”

“They get just a whiff of an answer sometimes. …..If an – well, unreligious person, needed consolation from religion, I’d advise him or her to sit in an empty church. Sit, not kneel. And listen, not pray. Prayer’s a very tricky business.”

“Goodness, is it?”

“Well, for inexperienced pray-ers it sometimes is. You see, they’re apt to think of God as a slot-machine. If nothing comes out they say ‘I knew dashed well it was empty’ – when the whole secret of prayer is knowing the machine is full.”

“But how can one know?”

“By filling it oneself.”

“With faith?”

“With faith. I expect you find that another boring word. And I warn you this slot-machine metaphor is going to break down at any moment. But if ever you’re feeling very unhappy…. well, try sitting in an empty church.”

“And listening for a whiff?”

We both laughed and then he said that it was just as reasonable to talk of smelling or tasting God as of seeing or hearing Him. “If one ever has any luck, one will know with all one’s senses – and none of them. Probably as good a way as any of describing it is that we shall ‘come over all queer.’”

“But haven’t you already?”

He sighed and said the whiffs were few and far between. “But the memory of them everlasting,” he added softly.

from I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, pp 234-5

December 28, 2010

At the Mall

I usually try to avoid going to the mall to shop during the days before Christmas. This year, I needed one thing that I could only buy there so off I went. After about 20 minutes or so, I found a parking spot and entered the fray. The mall was full of folks, some old men sitting on the communal couches, waiting with packages piled around them, teenagers roving in groups, some smiling and laughing but most wandering around with blank stares. As I joined the crowd, I had the unbidden thought: “What in the world would Jesus think of all this – all this consumerism and stress and lost expressions?” And then almost immediately, I heard in my heart these words of scripture: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9.36). And it was all right, there in the mall, in the midst of the mess of Christmas. God was with us: Emmanuel.

December 27, 2010

Christmas Eve

Through the Eyes of the Infant

Luke 2:1-20

This is one of the most beautiful nights of the year. We gather here to listen to this ancient story and we see the stable in our mind’s eye: Mary robed in blue looking peaceful and serene, Joseph standing by worried and protective, and the baby lying in a manger, fat and smiling and wrapped in sparkling white clothes.

That is our picture but it wasn’t that way at all. We are so used to the story that we miss its shocking reality. The child of God, this child who was God, came into the world in a place of muck and manure. When he opened his newborn eyes, he saw a rough stable, dimly lit at best, full of animals and their accumulated dirt and dust. The one who labored to bring him into the world was a poor unmarried peasant girl and his first visitors were common laborers, not accepted in polite society. Everything that baby laid his eyes on spoke of a world of bone-crushing hard work, struggles to survive, poverty and powerlessness.

And yet for all this hardship, that little baby saw love: the love of his earthly parents; the worship of the shepherds; even the much-maligned innkeeper who had provided a place, however crude, for him to be born. That little baby saw love and he was love, and maybe that is why we dress him up and clean up the stable and make Mary look beautiful in our manger scenes. After all God’s love is beautiful, isn’t it? And we want this most powerful sign of that love coming into the world to be beautiful too.

But the true beauty of God’s love, the great power of Christmas, is that God sees us as we really are – muck and all – and loves us anyway. And we understand the miracle of that love all the better because it comes to us, not as a king or an army or a judge, but as a baby.

We have little children in our family now, including a brand new baby. When F… arrived last month, his was a well-attended birth in a spotlessly clean place with expert medical care to ensure his safe arrival. There were no shepherds who came to visit, at least as far as I know, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the angels were singing because his birth was no less a miracle then the one we celebrate tonight.

Our new baby’s cousin just turned two years old. She has been hearing stories about the baby Jesus and paying close attention to these accounts of the young woman who brought forth her first-born son. W… has put two and two together and has come to the conclusion that new baby boy in our family must be the baby Jesus.

It is a sweet little confusion, isn’t it? Or at least that was my first reaction. But the more I’ve thought about it, I am reminded of the words of the palmist, “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” I think the two-year-old is on to something.

Just as Jesus was the son of God, the child of God, so is every baby born into this world. Every child is holy, and every child lays claim to our love and care just as the baby Jesus does. We are all made in the image of God, after all, and that godliness can seem stronger and clearer when we are fresh and new. Somehow as the years pile up, we make mistakes, act unkindly, live selfishly, we sin, and it becomes harder to see the image of God in each other. But it is still present – in all of us – no matter how young or how old. We are all children of God, with a holy DNA that shapes who we are and how we are to live. In this sense, W… is right about her new-born cousin. And it is true for all the rest of us too. We aren’t Jesus, but we are created to be Christ-like.

Imagine for a moment what the world would be like if we lived as though this were really true. It would change our behavior, I think, it would change everything, because we would all want to be seen as good and holy in the eyes of the infant and we would all see the world through that infant’s eyes.


There is an old story about a poor monastery somewhere, struggling to survive. No one was interested in being a monk anymore and there were only five old men left, trying to carry on and hold things together. At his wit’s end, one day the leader of the monastery, Brother David, went to visit the wise man who lived in the forest. He told his sad tale of the once beautiful monastery, with many brothers tending to the poor and doing good works – now falling down and about to come to an end. He begged the wise man for advice. But the wise old man had no easy answer to give. Instead he said to the old monk: “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you."

Brother David returned to the monastery without the help they had hoped for. He told his brothers what the wise old man had said, but none of them could figure out what it meant. “The Messiah is one of you.” So they went on with their daily business, doing the best they could, but they kept wondering about this. How could the Messiah be one of them? And if it was true, then which one?

It couldn’t be Brother Peter, could it? He was always in a bad mood before he had his second cup of coffee. It couldn’t be Brother James; he was forever falling asleep during prayers. It certainly wasn’t Brother John who would often go for a walk and get so distracted he would forget to do his work, which annoyed all the others. And Brother Luke scorched the oatmeal every single morning; he meant well but he just wasn’t very attentive. He didn’t seem likely to be the Messiah. And Brother David was a good and holy man, yes, but he was very, very old and that didn’t seem like one that God would choose to be the Messiah.

On the other hand, the monks had lived faithful and prayerful lives for a long time, and they knew that God often does surprising things. They knew that God could work through grumpy folks and distracted folks, and those who were tired or old or slow or inattentive. Maybe, just maybe, one of them really was the Messiah.

A curious thing began to happen at the old monastery. The way they saw each other and even the way they saw their own selves began to change. They began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

The whole place changed. Nearby neighbors and travelers from far away who stopped to rest at the monastery saw the change. Something special was happening and people began to want to be part of it. New brothers joined the old ones, the monastery grew, and its good works were a blessing to all. And all because they saw themselves and each other as the Messiah, as Christ-like, all because they saw through the eyes of the infant.


I do not know how the Messiah is present here tonight, but I do know that Christ is among us and within us and we, too, are God’s own children.

So this Christmas, may we see the world through the eyes of the infant, looking on each other as Jesus did, with compassion and love and forgiveness. And may we remember that we are all precious are in God’s eyes, even with our own faults and failings. Because just as the baby was born in the stable all those years ago, so Jesus still comes in the midst of the dirt and decay, the muck and mess of our own lives, looks on us with love, and watches over us all our days.

And when we see with the eyes of the infant, when we love as Jesus did, and live as the children of God that we are, we can change the world. And that is the true beauty of Christmas.