Monday, December 24, 2012

A Filthy Portal

In my last post I began to explore why the angelic birth announcement of the Messiah came to shepherds.  The first reason was that he came from their ranks, a shepherd for the people. The second reason is that he came to their ranks, more interested in the humble and hurting than in the prosperous and self-righteous.  Shepherds are a model of the former.  These are the kinds of people he came for. This post began as prose and morphed into loose poetry.  No mention of shepherds is made, but the idea remains.  He came for people like shepherds…and me.

A stable, suitable for animals. 
Mud encrusted hoofs, matted mains, grass entangled wool.
Dim and dank. 
Barnyard stink heavy in the air
A gritty maternity ward, makeshift and unadorned. 
In our sterilized Christmas we inject cuteness where none was present. 
This is a filthy backdrop. 

Christened with blood,
Dampened with amniotic fluid.
Ringing with the echoes of labored cries and anxious panting,
Rank with sweat.
A trough for feeding becomes a cradle for divinity. 
The setting of a holy birth.
The props of incarnation revealed.

This is the entry point for the son of God, far removed from satin sheets and room service.
He comes through a filthy portal into a filthy world to redeem a filthy people.
I take my place in the queue, dirty heart and dirty hands.
I bring my filth to the cradle.

I am appalled,
Revolted by my soiled self,
Ashamed of what lies in dark corners of my rebel heart.
He is not disturbed.
He was born into this. 
This is how he came. 
This is why he came.
To lead us out of filth and into cleansing.
“Today, in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Bethlehem Shepherds Guild

The desired of all nations (Haggai 2:7) has just been wiped clean of amniotic fluid.  A proper birth announcement is in order.  An angelic messenger, suffused in divine glory brings the news in knee-knocking fashion.  The message culminates with a vast throng joining the angel to proclaim, “glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  A filmmaker’s fantasy.  All manner of special effects employed. It comes with the flare and spectacle deserved of a king.

All of this hoo-hah, bombastic and regal, is fitting the occasion.  This, after all, is the long awaited Messiah.  We would expect an announcement of this import to be delivered in full spectacle.  All should hear.  It is, after all, a message of “good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). An angelic choir seems the ideal delivery system.  This is news that should be delivered far and wide.

Except it’s not.  Delivered far and wide, that is.  The surprise comes not in the delivery, but in the recipients.  The message circumvents palaces and cities (both in close proximity) and comes instead to a band of ragtag shepherds in an open field outside an insignificant village in the middle of the night.  An angelic misfire?  A wrong turn for these celestial couriers?

Do we really need all this hoopla for shepherds?  God could scale it down and still deliver the message effectively.  One talking sheep would do for these bumpkins.  Save the angelic hosts for the city of Jerusalem with a wider reach and more cultural leverage than these blue-collar grunts. 

So why shepherds?  I don’t think this was a purely random choice.  There is reason that the birth of the Messiah is announced to these men in particular.  One I will explore in this post, another I will save for my next post.

The first is that Jesus came from their ranks.  He belonged to the Bethlehem shepherds guild.  This had ben determined long before his birth.  Even with a carpenter from Nazareth as a father, his future as a shepherd from the rural backwoods of Bethlehem was certain.  It had been predicted by the prophet Micah seven hundred years earlier. 

In his most familiar prophecy, Micah pinpoints the Messiah’s origin as Bethlehem (Mich 5:2).  But he also anticipates the Messiah’s vocation.  “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4).  A shepherd from Bethlehem.  His fellow shepherds should be informed.   

A shepherd is Bethlehem’s only claim to fame.  In history, the town is rarely mentioned.  But they did have one famous resident who began his career as a shepherd on these same hills.  David, son of Jesse, had tended flocks in these fields.  Long hours of attentive watchfulness over vulnerable sheep had prepared him to shepherd a nation.  He became the great king of Israel.  Micah recognized that the Messiah would take the same career path.  The Messiah would be the great shepherd of the nation.

Much is made of Jesus being a carpenter’s son, but he never refers to himself as a wood worker.  Jesus came as a shepherd.  And while we don’t know that he ever owned a flock of sheep, he does identify himself with the shepherd’s union.  So, in Matthew 26:31, he applies Zechariah 13:7 to himself, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered.”  The striking of the shepherd is the crucifixion; the scattering of the sheep is the ensuing cowardice of the disciples.  Even more direct is John 10:11, where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. 

This is a flock, not of four legged wooly creatures, but of two legged men and women. We, the susceptible ewes, foolish and shortsighted, herd-driven and reckless, convinced that the grass is always greener in the field just over the fence.  He, the wise shepherd, alert to danger, aware of the needs of his flock, sacrificing comfort and ease for the goodwill of his sheep.   He beckons.  His sheep know his voice and follow.

Christmas is a subtle invitation to find pasturage under his gentle rod and staff.  To graze peacefully, as the shepherd wards off dangers.  And to trust him for provision even in scarcity.  He knows how to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters.  For he fills the manger long after he outgrows swaddled cloth.  This is the good news of great joy that will be for all people.  And a shepherd would understand that most of all.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


Prolepsis – Anticipation. The representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished. From the Greek pro (before) lambano (to take). 

Goodbyes lingered fresh as we backed out of the driveway and departed after two and a half days visiting my family in New Jersey.  We were there for a family feast, in honor of divine provision. Turkey, and stuffing, and carrots, and biscuits, and sweet potatoes, and broccoli, and corn, and mashed potatoes, and pie - all in extravagant abundance. 

And family, and rest, and walks, and (unsuccessful) geocaching, and (equally unsuccessful, but exceedingly more frustrating) plumbing, and allergies, and movies with wimpy kids and Penvensie children, and goofiness with corresponding laughter, and games, and sleep…blessed sleep. 

And conversation – unhurried and unforced.  Lingering around the table with empty plates and full bellies.  Feasting, first for our bodies, then for our souls.  Reminiscing of the past, updating on the present, projecting the future (with a healthy dose of murky uncertainty).  Casual conversation spinning into open-hearted vulnerability.  Comfortable lulls to transition.  

This is good.  Home in its richest sense.  A place of love and acceptance. A place of safety and rest.  A place of wholeness and joy.  A place of satisfied longing.  It lasted a couple days. 

We drove off after supper and in the dark, from the back seat, I could hear a sniffling whimper.  My son was crying; the overflow of a heart aching from good-bye.  His love for his cousins is deep and strong…and distant.  Brief immersion therapy cut off sharply.  He was grieving.  So was I, though I see it more fully.  I know that our destination in Syracuse is another satisfying expression of home, a place where I can most fully be myself and know that I am loved and accepted. A place where laughter is plentiful and love is secure.

But even that is temporal.   Longer than the two days we had in New Jersey, there is still the realization that in less than four years our daughter will head off to college and there will be one vacant seat at the table.  From there, the other three will follow in two year increments, slowly emptying our house and changing the nature of this home.  There will be sadness in the change; more heartache in goodbye.

But all of this is a reminder of a deeper and fuller longing for a home that is more robust than any expression of home I find here.  My childhood home in New Jersey and my current home in Syracuse, each a prolepsis, an anticipation of a future Home.  The sadness I feel in departure is a reminder that what I know of home, cherished as it is, retains a lower case “h.”  There is this longing that stirs beneath, a desire for Home where there will be no more death, or mourning, or crying.  The old order of things will pass away (Revelation 21:4).    Everyday will be a holiday, in its truest sense - a holy day with feasting full.  We will sit long at the table.  There will be no more goodbyes.  And, thankfully, no more plumbing.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Songs About Rainbows

“…Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

In one of the most familiar opening film segments, Kermit the frog is perched atop a log, banjo on knee, singing “Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side.”  Lost beneath the strangeness of a singing frog playing banjo is the irony of Kermit’s lyrical subject.

For a frog, a rainbow is pretty ho hum; bland and uninspiring – certainly not worth serenading.   The rainbow a frog sees is not the colorful spectacle I am familiar with.  Why, indeed, are there so many songs about something so blah.  Kermit’s curiosity is justifiable.

You see, the palette of my vision is dictated by three color receptors, called cones.  These three cones are sensitive to light of different wavelengths, roughly corresponding to red (long wavelengths), blue (short wavelengths), and green (medium wavelengths).  Stimulating various combinations of these cones allows me to see the array of colors I am familiar with, and a rainbow that transitions from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to violet (remembered with the familiar acronym ROYGBIV).

Frogs only have two cones – the red and green, restricting them to a more narrow color spectrum.  Kermit’s rainbow is pared to ROYG.  BIV has been lopped off.  With limited color sensitivity, frogs are better off relying on other sensors.  Instead of color cues, they depend almost exclusively on motion.  They will starve surrounded by food that is still.  And they will strike at anything that mimics the movement of a worm or bug. Kermit would more naturally sing about turbulent motion, than about spectacular color (as if a singing frog is in any way natural).

But for all the color that I see, human sight is not the most complex.  My three color receptors are dwarfed by the mantis shrimp, with its 16 color receptors.  These cones allow the shrimp to see color above and below the band visible to me, into infrared and ultraviolet.  And even within the band visible to me, the shrimp can see nuances of shade that are indiscriminate to my eye.  The shrimp can see colors that I have no name for and no conception of. 

The shrimp has the Crayola 150-count telescoping crayon tower, the deluxe artist’s kit.  I have the typical eight count schoolroom set, all the colors needed for elementary workbook pages.  Kermit has the two pack set you get at the restaurant to color the kids placemat.  A dull outcome is inevitable, no matter how hard Kermit works on his coloring book.

This is the framework for my thoughts on thanksgiving this year.  Gratitude is a matter of how we see things.  We can look at the same rainbow and see it quite differently.  The rainbow stays the same, the perception of it changes.  Gratitude is less about increased good fortune and more about increased awareness of existing good fortune.

Some will see thanksgiving as a narrow band of color, exhausted in a brief word of prayer before the turkey is passed and the stuffing is devoured.  Broad generalities of gratefulness for family, freedom, and financial provision may be all that constitutes blessing in their eye.  Thanksgiving is elicited when the calendar demands it or when the circumstance is reasonably intense - a narrowly avoided danger, a fortuitous prosperity, a satisfied longing.  Thanksgiving is rare, for the eye is not perceptive enough to employ it much.

Some will see gratitude as a broader color band, filling in some of the shades and expanding the palette.  This is more concrete - blessings in the particulars.  Not just thanking God for food.  Thanking him for fresh spinach in my fridge, the last of the local, organic greens we have enjoyed for the past four months.  And a freezer full of soups made from the summer bounty that will carry us through the cold winter months - Potato leek, zoupa Toscana, white bean and kale, and vegetable beef.

This rainbow of gratitude may even include shades of blue and purple; darker colors lacking the light cheeriness of a yellow or orange.  These are things not as obvious in their blessing.  Gratitude in deprivation as well as plenty.  Even in scarcity, God is good. 

But a precious few will see a world exploding with color on the broadest spectrum.  Every moment, a gift from God; every experience, a splash of vibrant color, infinitely and gloriously varied.  This is gratitude that infuses all of life, filling the cracks and crevices of apparent dullness with the awareness of a rainbow that is wider and brighter than the natural eye can see.  Life is a steady stream of gifts from a loving God.  Even the most mundane slivers are seen in rich hues of beauty, and wonder, and undeserved goodness.  To see the world as a mantis shrimp is to see blessing detailed, precise, and inexhaustible.

 When Paul instructs us to be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything” (Ephesians 5:20) he is inviting us to see blessing in richer colors on a wider spectrum.  The words “always” (temporal) and “everything” (topical) invite us to see shades that are often overlooked. We may be color blind to these tints until God opens our eyes to them, helping us to find beautiful color in the most boring elements of life and to be grateful even in hardship. 

A mantis shrimp never wonders why there are so many songs about rainbow.  He wonders why there aren’t more (or so I conjecture).  The brilliance I see in that arc in the sky is dwarfed by what the shrimp sees.  This thanksgiving I’m asking God to help me see a rainbow like a mantis shrimp.  I’d rather see like a shrimp than sing like a frog, even if you throw in the banjo playing.

Blog News: I reworked my posts from Thanksgiving last year and they ended up as an article in the current edition of Bible Advocate.  It's the current featured article on their website.  One more opportunity to prepare your heart (or, better, increase your color spectrum) for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Losing And Still Winning

On the heals of my second place finish in the Adirondack marathon relay, I decided to run one more race this season – the Empire State half marathon. The unreasonable entry fees keep me from racing more often than I do, but having spent three months building up my conditioning, it made sense to capitalize on that with one more race.   Based on last year’s results I knew my goal time would put me right in the mix for an award in my age group.  My hopes were high.

The race was this past weekend.  I ran well, right on my goal pace throughout, and finished in 1:32:08, good enough for 41st overall in a field of about 1350.  I was anxious to see how that would stack up against the other 40-45 year olds.  Results were printed out and taped to the side of a trailer where a crowd gathered.  I wriggled my way to the front and found my listing.  The results were in.  I placed fourth in my age group.  Awards for the top three.  And I was fourth. 

All the satisfaction of my individual performance withered in the light of the posted race results that left me just shy of the podium.  My time was good.  But I was just another also-ran.  I got a finishers medal – same as Will Artley who finished 1349th overall and took two and a half times as long to cover the 13.1 miles.

The next day I interviewed for a new position at work, a district manager.  I wrote about the experience in my last post, comparing it to a coin toss.  From my vantage point it was a wholly uncertain outcome.  From God’s perspective, it was a settled physics formula.  He knew the outcome the moment he tossed the coin.  He controlled all the variables that determined whether the coin would land heads or tails. 

Since then the coin, flipping end-over-end, has come to rest.  All that spinning finished.  All that uncertainty settled.  I had called it heads as it was whirled through the air throbbing with vigor.  Now I gaze at a coin still as night, tales side up.  I did not get the job.  There was one candidate who beat me out based on experience.  I was runner-up, small consolation in a contest with only one prize.

Runner-up may be harder to stomach than back of the pack.  Close enough to taste victory, only to walk away with a mouth full of sand.  It’s a gritty chew that goes down hard.  Hope runs high and disappointment runs deep. The near miss has all the drama of victory and all the angst of defeat. It is being in the running and then losing on the final kick. But failure measured in inches is as much failure as that measured in yards.  There is little comfort is being the best of the losers.

I didn’t stay for the awards ceremony after the race.  Why bother?  I wouldn’t get anything for fourth place.  Later that day I went on the website to check out the results a bit more closely.  The results opened to a page entitled “HalfMarathon – Awards and Age Group Listing.”  I scrolled down to my age group and found my name listed in third place.  Third place?  But I was fourth.

It turns out that they also had an overall masters award for those forty and older.  The first place finisher in my age group was the overall masters winner.  Having won the masters, he was not included in the age group awards.  Everyone moved up a spot. I moved into third.  Knocked out of the awards only to discover a loophole allowing me to slide into third.  I lost; and yet I won.  This seems a formula that God employs frequently.

When he called to tell me the decision, the director of Human Resources said that he had bad news and good news.  The bad news was that I didn’t get the job.  The good news was that they recognized the need to create a career path to allow me to move forward.  They have decided to develop a new position for me – a regional supervisor.  As they build a third Syracuse location and expand the original Syracuse location to include full food service, they would like me to move out of a single store and begin to supervise six profit centers for Syracuse – three stores and three food service departments.  

I lost, and yet I won.  Missing out on the District Manager position hurts, but this regional supervisor may be better suited to me – less travel and more concentrated focus on three locations.  This is my strength.  I trained all the managers in the Syracuse market.  I am training two more now.  These are established relationships of trust and respect, easily leveraged for me to act as supervisor.  I run an increasingly profitable store, top line and bottom line and feel confident that this is reproducible.  I know our food service program well, from front line production to back house administrative work.  Even now I am helping a new food service supervisor in our store get his legs under him.  This seems a good fit, from every angle. 

It will be some time before the pieces fall into place, probably coinciding with the building of the new location in the next year or so.  But I am hopeful.  In losing the coin toss, I may still win the game.  The seeds of hope have been planted in the rich compost of disappointment.  On close inspection, I see the stem just breaking through the soil.