It’s Christmas Day! This is a magical time of the year, especially for children. That’s certainly true for the Willards. Here’s a photo of us at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve. Joy and wonder seemed to fill the air on that holy night.
Inside the church, of course, we are reminded that love came down at Christmas in the birth of Jesus. I witnessed that on Christmas Eve as men, women, and children came forward to receive communion and in the Rector’s study with my family as we enjoyed a picnic there between services. It’s truly a special evening filled with awe.
Today it seems appropriate to reflect on Christmas in haiku. All you need is one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Mine refers to the late church service on Christmas Eve:
Christmas at Palmer —
Sing “O come, all ye faithful”
and watch incense rise.
One of my colleagues at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, whom everyone knows really loves Star Wars, has decorated the publications office with lots of snowflakes for Advent & Christmas. The Morning Star, of course, dispels even the dark side. That’s good news for the whole universe, including these Imperial Stormtroopers.
It’s no secret either that today is the official opening date of Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens or that the Willard family has tickets to see that movie today, very soon after school is dismissed for Christmas break. It should really come as no surprise, therefore, that today’s haiku theme is all things related to Star Wars.
Although this theme has been explored here previously, I doubt that our collective imagination has been exhausted. So may the Force be with you as you write your one verse of poetry with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second, and five syllables in the third line. Then share it with the rest of us. Here’s mine:
Snowflakes are unique.
God sees Stormtroopers that way,
removing the mask.
As I’ve mentioned previously, directly across the street from the church that I serve in Houston is the largest medical complex in the world. Yesterday morning, I walked across that street into the Texas Medical Center to visit a parishioner at Methodist Hospital. Afterwards, I ran into Dr. Henry Strobel, who is an Episcopal priest and a professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School, which is also located here in Houston at the Texas Medical Center. So I enjoyed a brief, personal tour of that sixth largest medical school in the United States. Outside, passersby are greeted by Hippocrates:
The several weeks leading up to Christmas are a special time of the year known to many Christians as the season of Advent. Some of us are counting down those days before Christmas by participating in the Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar. Each day it features a new word that people are invited to respond to with images and prayers that speak to their hearts. It also uses hashtags (i.e., adding “#” before a word so that it can be found on the internet via Twitter, just like looking up a word in the index of a book). #Shine is today’s #AdventWord, which inspired my wife Carrie to take this photograph at Camp Allen in Navasota, Texas.
For me, it brought to mind the first verse of a traditional Moravian Christmas hymn:
Morning Star, O cheering sight!
Ere thou cam’st how dark earth’s night!
Jesus mine, in me shine;
in me shine, Jesus mine;
fill my heart with light divine.
Let’s write haiku using the #AdventWord #Shine. Create a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:
People are afraid
of the dark. But light will #shine
there — The Morning Star.
I was recently walking on the campus of Rice University and ran into a familiar face. This is John Thomas, who works at Rice during the day and, after finishing there, as a security guard across the street at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. He always stops to greet me, and he always has a cowboy hat as part of his fashion statement.
Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Advent II, December 6, 2015
Morning Star, my soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night:
Jesus mine, in me shine, fill my heart with light divine. Amen.
Advent begins in the dark. In this holy season we light one extra candle each Sunday on the Advent wreath as we walk together through that darkness. What we want is for God to shine as a light, dispelling disappointments and diseases, suffering and sorrow, and the unending violence that humanity has unleashed in this world.
“Do something,” we pray.
Wednesday’s massacre at a county health department holiday party in San Bernardino, California, is evidence enough of the darkness that surrounds us. Images of the couple who committed that act of terrorism — a bearded Sayed Farook and a head-covered Tashfeen Malik — filled the screen of my computer as I read some of the news reports about it. Much later I read about the 14 victims.
Among the dead from that tragedy were several women in their 20s; a gay man with “a larger-than-life personality” who loved to talk to strangers; a mother of three who “moved to the United States from Iran to escape religious persecution;” a father who came to California from Mexico in his 20s and put himself through college in this country; a man who shielded one of his younger co-workers from the bullets and told her, “I got you;” a daughter whose parents fled Vietnam when she was a child and whose large extended family gathered together for dinner every Sunday night; and an immigrant from Eritrea who “loved his new life in his new country.”
On Thursday, as the daylight slowly began to fade away, I drove to Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative Building. As many of you know, every now and then I invite you and anyone else who wants to go “On the Road with the Rector” to join me in hearing a speaker or a panel discussion on something that might either strengthen or challenge our Christian faith. One of those events was Thursday night — a presentation and discussion of the largest multi-national study to date of scientists’ attitudes towards religion. There I would meet old and new friends alike.
I parked in the underground parking garage of the same building where that study was being presented. As I walked from my car to the elevator, I got closer and closer to a woman who was wearing a hajib — the same head covering that I had just seen in photos of the female terrorist in California. She and her friend took the same elevator with me to the first floor. Soon after its doors opened again and we walked into the lobby, this woman in Muslim clothing extended her hand to me in greeting, introducing herself. We shook hands, and I mentioned that I was an Episcopal priest at the church down the street next to the university and the medical center.
That’s when she recognized me. It turns out that she belongs to the Turquoise Center here in Houston. A group of folks from Palmer, including me, had attended a friendship dinner there in order to learn more about that community’s Turkish culture and Muslim faith. And then we invited them to a dinner at Palmer to learn about Christian worship and how our Christian faith shapes our day to day lives.
After I was seated in the auditorium for the presentation about scientists and religion, an older couple sat down in the row above and behind me. The wife noticed a book of sermons by the Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas that was on my lap. So we talked about him and introduced ourselves. They’re Methodists, and she wanted to know about our ministries to the homeless and how the context for those ministries had changed over the summer.
Another Christian, someone from India, came into the room and started talking to that older couple. He explained to them that his wife couldn’t make it because the Green Bay Packers were playing football. Well, I couldn’t stay out of that discussion. One thing led to another, and we discovered that we had both married women from Wisconsin. So we bonded over the devotion of Packers fans. “It’s amazing how loyal those people are,” he exclaimed. I assured him that I fully understood his situation.
I had a different connection to everyone that I talked to that night. But all of us looked to Abraham as our ancestor in faith, and most of us looked to Jesus as the one who reveals most clearly what God is like and is, indeed, Emmanuel, God-with-us. I drove out of the parking garage later into the darkness of a winter night. It was an unsettling reminder of Advent, and I longed to take with me some of the light that I had encountered inside that building in rich conversations and new friendships.
Surely everyone I had met on Thursday night would want God to appear in the darkness and right all wrongs in this world. That’s what the people to whom the Old Testament Prophet Malachi spoke wanted. They had returned home from exile, rebuilt the temple, stone by stone, and renewed worship at its altar. Like them, we want our offerings to be pleasing to the Lord. We want the day of the Lord to appear — soon — to fix things. But the Prophet Malachi brings them a word that’s surprising, perhaps even offensive to those who think of themselves as devout:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. . . . But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
Malachi sees what the people have chosen not to see — neglected widows and orphans, workers robbed of a fair wage, marriages rocked by infidelity, and refugees cast aside because the people fear strangers more than they fear the Lord.
Yet that same Lord does not wish the death of these sinners. In spite of their mistakes, Malachi assures them that they have not perished. He tells them that the coming of the Lord will be “like a refiner’s fire and a fuller’s soap.” Those images suggest God is not only strong but also tender. Those mistakes, those wrongs can’t survive in God’s refining presence. As one biblical scholar has noted, however:
. . . our sins and faults are part of us. We want to be pure, but we are not sure we want to be changed. . . . A refiner’s fire is terrifying and untouchable, but [the other image used by Malachi, laundry soap,] is close and personal — touching me and my most intimate clothing. . . . Malachi suggests that God is like the tribal mother washing the family’s clothes in a stream; she won’t rest until everything is clean and fresh. Hers is a hands-on labor of love, working to make sure that those she cares enough about to touch the dirt on their bodies can be clean and presentable to the world. God is like that, says Malachi — a washer-woman, bent on cleaning up her family.
As Christians, we believe the messenger sent to prepare the way for this God was John the Baptist, son of the priest Zechariah. And we believe this same God suddenly came to his temple in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both strong and tender, washing us in his forgiveness and love, embracing us with his compassion and grace, accepting us in spite of our worst selves, our most hateful thoughts, our most exclusive actions. In him, we have been made worthy to stand before God.
One of my old parishioners, a former federal prosecutor in the City of Detroit who is now a professor of criminal law, wrote a brief reflection about the violent events of last week. It’s something that continues to haunt me. “[I]n many minds,” he said:
. . . terrorism of this sort is committed by people with names like “Syed,” not by people with names like “Tim,” or “James” or “Adam.” Which is true, until Tim blows up a federal building, and James shoots up a theater and Adam kills people in a church in Charleston.
We could add the name of a woman named Tashfeen and too many others to that list. It would quickly represent a cross-section of humanity. There was also a cross-section of humanity among the victims last Wednesday and the people I met on Thursday. I don’t know how to right those wrongs for all of humanity. I want God to come here and do that soon. But I do know that the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap must first go to work on my own heart. And I believe that after that, love wins, even if the facts on the ground testify otherwise. History can be read more than one way, but I believe that Christ’s love, not Constantine’s sword, conquered the empire.
And I believe that Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, in the words of our mission statement, will continue to “know and share the love of Jesus Christ” — ministering to people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth who come in search of healing at the Texas Medical Center; helping, as we have done for many years, to resettle those who come to the City of Houston as refugees from war-torn lands; and keeping our doors open for those who long for God to come suddenly to his temple, making right that which is amiss, beginning with their own hearts.
1 BACK TO POST It was only after I had preached this sermon that I thought of this prayer as the right introduction to the words that follow. Revelation 22:16, among the Bible’s last words, refers to Jesus as “the bright morning star.” In the Moravian Church, “Morning Star, O Cheering Sight!” is a beloved Christmas hymn that traditionally features a child soloist who sings antiphonally with a choir or a congregation. This prayer comes from the words of the final verse of that hymn.
3 BACK TO POST Malachi 3:1-2.
4 BACK TO POST Malachi 3:2.
5 BACK TO POST Frederick J. Gaiser, “Refiner’s Fire and Laundry Soap: Images of God in Malachi 3:1-4,” Word & World, Volume XIX, Number 1, Winter 1999, 88.
While I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world, I did marry an awesome woman from Wisconsin. That means that I automatically married into a family of Green Bay Packer fans. The entire State of Wisconsin supports that NFL team with a religious zeal that is difficult for many outsiders to understand completely. It’s amazing.
Also amazing was last night’s football game against the Detroit Lions. At halftime, the Packers were down 17-0. Soon thereafter, they were down 20-0. But the final score of 27-23 showed the seemingly impossible — the Packers on the winning side. It was miraculous because of this last-second, “Hail Mary” pass by Aaron Rodgers.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) December 4, 2015
Let’s write haiku this week about those kinds of mission impossible situations. It might be sports-related or something much more serious. In the end, it might have turned out well, or the effort might have crashed spectacularly in a blaze of glory. Describe that experience for us in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s what I wrote:
Seemed like a long shot —
but she liked me as much as
she liked the Packers.
Not surprisingly, I preach a lot of sermons about forgiveness, something that God does really well and that we don’t. The facts on the ground point this out to us time and time again. So did a study a few years ago by the Fetzer Institute of Kalamazoo, Michigan. That study was highlighted in a Religion News Service article by Whitney Jones, “Americans Crave Forgiveness But Are Not Very Forgiving,” which stated:
Most Americans have a desire for more forgiveness in their lives, but they are more critical when choosing who to forgive . . .
How have Americans become somewhat miserly with forgiveness, reversing the biblical idea that it’s more blessed to give than to receive? Read on:
Most people said they sought the advice of friends and family rather than religious leaders when grappling with issues of forgiveness, while one in four said they did not know where to go for help with spiritual needs, and a third of them struggle with spirituality.
Of course, it might be built into our DNA, part of the human condition, a red flag of our bondage to something that’s greater and more powerful than ourselves.
It seems that most of the people around us, while wanting forgiveness for themselves, believe that some things are unforgiveable and that forgiveness is always conditional. According to the study referenced above, 60% of us are willing to admit that we believe the latter point to be true (i.e., that “forgiving someone would first depend on the offender apologizing and making changes”).
Reading that and the previous statistics makes us wonder what the “real” percentages are, doesn’t it? After all, who doesn’t struggle with faith when the issue of forgiveness, incarnated in a concrete situation, is staring us right in the face? One of the contributors to the Mockingbird Blog, “Tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter,” wondered about that too:
These results are, in fact, much too conservative. My feeling is that the true numbers ought to be about 100% in every case. Almost nobody knows what in the world is going on (existentially speaking), including myself; and our true selves emerge spontaneously, not after we have a moment to mull over the best answer to the pollster’s question. So the margin of error in polls like these is influenced less by the sample size . . . and more by the respondent’s desire to respond as the idealized self. The reality, of course, is that the numbers would have been the same had the poll been conducted within the church. Thank goodness that Christ was pro-active in his forgiveness, even calling out from the cross on behalf of his murderers, ‘Father, forgive them!’ Yes, and forgive us too.
That, my friends, is what we call unconditional forgiveness or one-way love.
Living in the City of Houston provides us with incredible opportunities to participate in cultural and intellectual events. Throughout the year, I’ll invite you and your friends and neighbors to join me in some of these activities that might either strengthen or challenge us as Christians.
The next “On the Road with the Rector” event is a panel discussion tomorrow that kicks off a mini-conference at Rice University on the largest multi-national study to date of scientists’ attitudes towards religion. The panelists include: Alper Bilgili, Suleyman Sah University; Helen Rose Ebaugh, University of Houston; Elaine Howard Ecklund, Rice University; Steven Lewis, Rice University; Kirstin Matthews, Rice University; Chantal Saint-Blancat, University of Padova; David Voas, University of Essex; and Fenggang Yang, Purdue University. This mini-conference, sponsored by the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University, is open to the public.
Click here for the full schedule, including details about the evening sessions that will follow the panel discussion. That opening, plenary session begins on Thursday, December 3, at 5:30 p.m. in Auditorium 103 of Rice University’s BioScience Research Collaborative Building, which is located at 6500 Main Street. As always, if possible, please let them know that you will be attending. You can RSVP either by registering online or by sending an email to Hayley Hemstreet, Program Manager for the Religion and Public Life Program, at email@example.com.