Monday, December 22, 2008

Do Not Be Afraid!

“Do not be afraid,” they say. “I bring good news,” they say. That’s easy for them to say. Can you imagine being one of those people who were visited by angelic messengers in the beginning chapters of the Gospel of Luke? Unexpectedly and extraordinarily God breaks into your life through these remarkable messengers, and you are asked not to be afraid; good luck with that!

On the other hand, can you imagine being one of these angels? You could never just walk into a room or a shepherd’s field and say, “Hi.” Your mere presence would freak people out so much that the first part of your proclamation always had to be, “Yeah, I’m an angel; now settle down and listen.” That seems to be the way they introduced themselves, and perhaps it was out of necessity: if they didn’t at least try to calm their hearers down, the rest of the message would likely be lost.

But I also wonder if there was more to this opening proclamation than that; perhaps there is more to the command of, “Do not be afraid,” than a futile attempt to help mortals in getting their heads around the presence of God’s heavenly messengers. What if these words give meaning and shape to these proclamations themselves: what if, “Do not be afraid,” is really the whole point?

I went skiing with some church members the other day and they tried to play a little trick on me: I had been following them all day and they took me to the top of an ugly looking slope – full of moguls and very steep. They told me we were going down it and it would be fine. I think their intent was to get me to say something like, “Are you kidding? I’m sane and I have a lot to live for; I’m not going down that thing,” (which would have been the sensible thing to say). Unfortunately, I said no such thing because they made the mistake of telling me that it would be OK. They had been skiing with me for hours; they knew what I was capable of and I trusted them. When they said I could do it, I believed them! (Fortunately, we then went down a different way.)

When the angels appear in the beginning of Luke, they begin by proclaiming that we should not fear, and they knew what they were talking about. But this proclamation has value beyond how their appearance was making the shepherds quake; their proclamation speaks to our fears as well. They had insight into how this story ends. They knew for a fact that this child they were proclaiming would be the end of all our fears, not just the fear of angels.

Note that in Romans 8, Paul lists angels as one of those things that won’t ever be able to separate us from God’s love, shown to us through this baby born (see Romans 8:37-39). But note also that his list starts with death. His list starts with the most dreaded and ominous of our fears and it is the first thing that we have conquered in Christ. The rest of those fears – angels, tumultuous economies and governments, menacing ski slopes, and so on – fall in line accordingly in the list of worries that can no longer hold us captive. Because of this baby born in the middle of nowhere to a couple that no one had ever heard of, we no longer have to be afraid again.

And so I believe the proclamation of the herald angels has become our proclamation to the world: do not be afraid! We are now sent, this season and throughout our lives, to proclaim this good news of great joy to all people: a Savior has been born! And this Savior is the end of fear.

Merry Christmas and be at peace.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Clearing the Way

I think in metaphor when I’m shoveling snow. My mind tends to wander whenever I’m doing anything that doesn’t require much active thought: taking a shower, going for a walk, and things like that. But since moving to Bayfield, I’ve been trying more actively to let my meandering thoughts settle on the lessons that these seemingly mundane activities might tell. Lately I’ve been shoveling snow and thinking about its parables.

I think shoveling snow is a lesson on repentance; and I can always use a lesson on repentance. Not that I have more to repent about in my life than anyone else, in fact that’s partly the point: repentance is the act of turning back to God; of taking note of where we are in our relationship with our Savior and doing what we can to put our actions and our thoughts back in line with God’s will.

Often we think of repentance in terms of last resort. We think of and seek repentance because we no longer have a choice; we’ve been caught – if only by the Spirit’s nudging within us – and we know we’ve got to seek God’s mercy and get back to the business of building Christ’s Kingdom. This is the repentance we know the best, and certainly any repentance is good repentance, but it isn’t the only kind. In fact, it may not be the best kind.

This brings us to the metaphor of snow-shoveling: shoveling snow, like a renewed desire to be right with God, is never futile. Whether there are three inches on the ground or a foot, there are always good reasons for shoveling it (I might as well point out that the parable begins to fall apart if you prefer a plow or a snow-blower). If nothing else, shoveling snow and repentance are good exercises… and like any exercise, it may not always be fun. When I’m finished with the driveway, I hurt in places I forgot I had. I’ve used muscles and joints that don’t get pushed that way too often. My heart gets pumping and I end the chore tired, thirsty, and a bit achy. So too repentance might hurt, especially if we’re working in spiritual places that have been neglected for some time. The good news is, by God’s grace the pain does pass and we might even find ourselves stronger for the process.

Sometimes I feel a little silly when I’m shoveling snow. I feel silly because I’m the only one on my street who’s doing it. Yesterday there were only a couple of inches on the driveway; it wasn’t going to impede anyone. Before I left for work I cleared it and I felt very self-conscious in doing it. But I did it for two reasons: first I thought, “If it’s not going to snow any more today (and it didn’t) then I will come home to a clear, dry, and non-slushy driveway.” But I also thought, “If it does snow some more today, that’s two less inches I’m going to have to move this afternoon.”

Although this non-rock-bottom brand of repentance may also make us feel a bit self-conscious – after all, we may be the only ones on our block engaging in it – I also think it’s superior. Like gently falling snow, those things that turn us from the will of God might seem innocent enough… until they begin to settle in and harden on our hearts like ice on a driveway. On the other hand, the practice of clearing the way on a regular basis both lightens the work of repentance and may even help us to avoid more serious problems that follow.

As I look back on my career so far, I have not preached heresy, I have not embezzled from anyone, I have not hurt children, I have not been unfaithful to my wife, and I have not even raised my voice in anger toward one of my siblings in Christ. But where I have failed as Christ’s under-shepherd has been in a lack of regular repentance. I have not always sought God’s correction as I should and thus I have let down the people of God and myself.

Let us all be always attentive in clearing the way between ourselves and God and one another. Let not even a light dusting keep us from seeking the face of God as we strive together to be Christ’s Body in this place.