“The Holy Innocents”

Herod, king when Jesus was born, is told by wise men from the East that there is a child born king of the Jews whose star they have been following.  To eliminate the threat this child poses, King Herod has all boys under age two killed.  But Jesus escapes because Joseph had been warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt.

This story has many parallels with the story of Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, and points to Jesus as a new liberator.  But the story also kicks up some deep and perplexing questions.  What about all those children who were killed, and what about their families?  Why weren’t they saved?  Where was God?  Did God abandon them?

How can I say that God healed me when so many people are not healed?  Does God listen?  Does God really intervene?  Does God play favorites?  Can God be trusted?  Do these hard things mean that God doesn’t exist, or that God doesn’t care?

This Bible story doesn’t give answers to these questions but it does point.  In the gospel story, the death of the children does not go ignored.  Matthew includes a very powerful quotation from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled.  The death of children did not and does not go unheard.  In the Roman Catholic Church there is a feast day on December 28 memorializing Herod’s victims—the feast of the Holy Innocents.

When children are killed today, there is outcry.  On September 15, 1963, four school-age African-American girls were killed in a bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  People knew this was wrong.  It became a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, and it contributed to support for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  When on December 14, 2012, twenty children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a pall lay over the country.   Their story is not forgotten.

What I particularly value is that Matthew’s account makes clear that the God the Bible talks about is not one who prevents bad things from happening even to people who love God.  God intervenes in human lives but not always and not predictably.  God is mystery; God’s ways are beyond our human comprehension.  What I know experientially is that God is, God acts, God communicates, and God is available—regardless of outward circumstances.

Queries:

Under what circumstances have you questioned God?  What is it to trust God?

What groups of young people suffering call for your care?

Prayer:

You who are beyond our comprehension but not beyond caring, help us notice the children who are being wounded by the circumstances of our world and let us be heard wailing and in loud lamentation.

For further reference:

“Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.  Come, let us deal shrewdly with them. . . . (See Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10).

“When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (See Matthew 14: 13-21).

Being Prepared

Anne is a birdwatcher (what English people call a “twitcher”).  As a child she began learning to recognize and name the birds she saw—robin, cardinal, blue jay.  Now she has a life list and travels to special sites to have a chance to see birds she has never seen before.  Being prepared, she says, is the key to birdwatching.  But it isn’t the kind of being prepared that one does for some event occurring at a certain place on a certain date.  It is a preparation that allows one to receive gifts whenever they show up.

To be prepared to see birds takes having a body of knowledge that develops little by little; the more you know the more you can know.  It also takes some aptitudes and attitudes—skill at using binoculars, a framework for interpreting what you have seen, practice, patience, and joy at seeing whatever shows up or even nothing.

I practice a kind of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer, promoted by Contemplative Outreach.  It is a method that prepares the pray-er to receive the gift of contemplation if and when it is given.  Like those seeds that, once planted in the ground, wait months or even years for the conditions to be right—enough water, nutrients, and the right temperature—for germination, centering prayer involves staying put and waiting.

I believe that the whole of the spiritual life is about being prepared—both actively preparing and passively being formed and readied (and everything in between)—for living and for death. The elements of such being prepared include experiences and a framework or knowledge base for interpreting those experiences; a deep desire for, commitment or dedication to this life and to the One who gives it; and a community with whom to prepare.  There are also aptitudes and attitudes that help—practice, ability to listen, trust, and gratitude.

I believe that God’s goodness grants us moments of abundant life, and being prepared enables us to notice them and soak up the joy that might otherwise simply fly by without being seen or appreciated.

Queries:

For what do you have a deep desire to be prepared?  What do you need to do?

In what ways have you been prepared and in what ways are you in the act of being prepared?

Prayer:

Knowing rote prayers of the church can be a way of being prepared.  There are multiple ways of praying. Being prepared happens when one prays regularly.  Take on a spiritual practice of prayer.

For further reflection:

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (See Matthew 25: 1-13).

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (See Luke 3: 1-14 and Isaiah 40: 3-5).

Jesus Christ—What’s in a Name?

Who is Jesus and why does that matter? I both know and don’t know. The name Jesus Christ stirs all kinds of feelings and responses. Sometimes I hear people saying Jesus Christ, as if Christ were Jesus’ last name. Sometimes I hear people drawn to the name Jesus–the historical human being, the teacher. Sometimes, like early Friends, people express more openness to Christ, the cosmic and universal divine being. What can the name Jesus Christ tell us?

At a certain point Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is (Mark 8: 27; Matthew 16: 13). It seems as if it was common in those days for a person to be understood in relation to another person or quality. The people say Jesus is Elijah or John the Baptist, not because they are confusing him with them but because they are fitting Jesus into a story and understanding him in that context. Knowing him as the Messiah (or the Christ, the Greek word for the same concept)—the anointed one, the one who makes all things new—is catching the big picture.   The disciples begin to see what others who didn’t see that picture couldn’t see. To know Jesus as the Christ can do that for us too.

Jesus Christ also conveys the truth that the only Jesus we have is the one remembered, talked about, and understood after the fact of his death and the experience of his resurrection. When we look back and tell stories from the past they are always colored by the eyes we have in the present. It is a gift that we can see the connections and meaning in ways we couldn’t at the time. (For example, the Martin Luther King I know now is way more significant than the man I read about in the 1950’s.)

The name Jesus Christ affirms the paradox that this one is both human and divine, that God dwells with us on earth in human flesh, that the divine and human are forever one. It reminds us that we also are human and divine, even if the divine seems well hidden. It can encourage us to listen inwardly.

I am glad that we have this two-part name. It gives us room to make some kind of connection regardless of how we feel or what we know at any given time. And it also carries an invitation or challenge to know more.

Queries:

What do you know and how do you feel about Jesus Christ?

How do you become open to seeing things in new ways?

Prayer:

Imagine yourself with Jesus and hear him ask you, “Who do you say I am?” Allow yourself to be present, to listen and respond.

For further reflection:

“Wonderful Counselor . . . Prince of Peace . . .” (See Isaiah 9:6).

“You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. . .” (See Matthew 1:18-25). Note: The Hebrew and Aramaic forms of Jesus and he will save are similar.

Welcoming the Stranger

Waiting for whoever might come for our new Bible study at the Friends’ meetinghouse, I was surprised when a homeless white woman opened the door and asked if we were having a Bible study or prayer meeting. I said we were and, not knowing what else to say, invited her to join us.

She went to the bathroom. A man I was expecting arrived. She came back out and joined us. She pulled out her toothbrush and toothpaste and brushed a little, then sprayed toward her underarms with something that smelled good. No one else came, but we decided to go ahead with our study. She said she preferred the King James Bible, but we didn’t have one.

We launched into a conversation about Genesis 1. It soon was obvious that she didn’t need a copy of the Bible because she knew vast portions of it by heart. She entered right into our conversation with helpful comments. Her clear blue eyes were twinkling, she was smiling, and her face glowed with light. I listened intently, trying to take in the good she was offering us, yet also warily, not knowing what to make of this homeless stranger. The Benedictines teach that we should greet everyone as Christ. “Who is she,” I wondered, “and what I am to learn?” It was, for me, an extraordinary experience.

Before telling a group of friends about this, I asked them to tell stories about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend. All the stories were about unexpected gifts that had come from taking the time to be present with another person. So often, maybe wisely, we set up barriers to keep us in control or to avoid being vulnerable. But what might we be missing?

Queries:

What story about encountering a stranger or visiting with a friend can you tell?

When is it valuable to be vulnerable and when is it inappropriate? Do you need more safety or more willingness to be vulnerable?

Prayer:

God of steadfast love and mercy, bless us with understanding hearts and peaceful spirits.

For further reflection:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. . . . And who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37).

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13: 2)