Inspire our hearts, feet, & hands to be your expansive love in the face of hostility and hatred and fear. Help us to retain your essence of compassion and favor for those on the margins. May we embrace your calling of love and justice in “just such a time as this.” Amen.
Related Scripture Readings Luke 12:22, 25, & 31 Micah 6:8 Mark 12:30-31 Esther 4:14
I was disappointed that I was unable to significantly exceed my goal, a goal that seemed insurmountable a year ago. I recall saying as I signed up for the challenge, “I may not make it but I can try, can’t I?” I ran 1000 kilometers last year. (Actually, 1037k which is equivalent to 644 miles.)
Running 1000 kilometers in a year was a significant accomplishment for this fifty-seven year old man. I didn’t win any races (or run more than one) but I cannot forget the feelings of accomplishment intertwined with physical exhaustion on that hot summer morning when I ran 13.31 miles in less than two hours. For non-runners, that’s a half-marathon. That’s better than a nine minute mile.
So, why was I disappointed that I did not significantly exceed my 1000k goal? I think my disappointment was tangled up with my injury discouragement. Between mid-September and late December I was on an injury-enforced hiatus. I lost one-quarter of the year to an injury I didn’t see coming. It felt like a personal attack.
Running continues to teach me about balance. It teaches me about being.
My natural inclination is to do, do, do, and do. Until exhausted. This inclination is something akin to a compulsion but is also a learned behavior. As a child, I absorbed the internal belief that my value as a human being is related to what I do. This is a “works theology” in which hard work gets us love.
My journey over the last decade has enabled me to be more and to do less, but my embedded inclination is still a powerful force. Yes, hard work can and often is a good thing but it is not the source of my worth. It is not the source of love. Love is only love if it is given freely and without strings of expectations.
And I love running!
I love running! (To be sure, I hate running during the first mile or two of every run but after that, I love running.) I love running under the big skies of rural eastern Oregon. I love running along Portland’s suburban footpaths. I love running in the rain! And I’m learning to love running in the cold.
Running requires balance. I must pay attention to my body. Like my faith that dictates a regular sabbath, running requires rest days. It requires time for adequate recovery between runs. It requires pacing and kindness to myself when my body and, sometimes even my spirit, needs a day off.
When I miss my body’s signals, my body can become injured. My love of running allowed me to push myself too hard through the summer months. It was time for a vacation. A week or two off from running before my injury might have prevented the long healing period at the end of last year.
Running is metaphor. Just as my body needed a break to prevent physical injury, something I failed to give it, our spirits need rest. When I fail to take adequate sabbath or insist that hard work will get me more love or prove my worth, I am harming my spirit just as I injured a tendon in mid-September.
Goals like my 1000k goal last year serve a purpose. It is reasonable to set goals that require effort and provide purpose. However, goals and New Year’s resolutions can cause us to harm ourselves. If the goal becomes more important than ourselves and the people around us, we fail to be who we are created to be.
Yes, I was disappointed but I am learning. I am learning to be. This year, I’ve set a personal goal of running 1000 miles (equivalent to 1609k). In addition to the distance goal, I commit to paying closer attention to my pacing, not just the speed I move but to take weeks off here and there to rest my body.
Because running is metaphor, I also commit to the 1000 mile journey of the new year by pacing myself. I will take care of my spirit, taking adequate sabbath and vacation to avoid injury to my core, my soul.
I cannot get past the first clause in Isaiah 61, the scripture reading for this week.(1)
The LORD God’s spirit is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me.
[God] has sent me
to bring good news to the poor (Isaiah 61:1a CEB)
Specifically it is the “anointed me” and “good news to the poor” that bogs me down. This passage is deeply unsettling. I perceive the the presence of the still speaking God, of the Holy Spirit in my reading of these ancient words of the prophet Isaiah. We are embarking on an era (at least in the US) in which compassion and supports for the poor are likely to be rolled back rather than improved. They are not good now. There is very little good news for the poor (or oppressed, or meek, or afflicted depending upon translation) in 2016.
The good news for the poor/afflicted/oppressed will very likely have to come from outside government. In an era of declining revenues, the church would appear to be wholly unprepared for picking up the slack and speaking good news in action for the poor.
Yet…that is what I perceive God calling us to become. Jesus was not a landowner. He didn’t have a home and a paying profession. He sacrificed all that — and his life on the cross — to bring good news to the poor and afflicted living on the margins of ancient society.
BUT it is more than just the role of the church.
This stuck in my craw feeling feeling I have is personal. It should be personal for all of us claiming to follow Jesus. Our baptisms, whether with water or just spiritual, are our anointing. Isaiah was speaking to our ancient kindred suffering humiliation and discrimination 400 to 500 years prior to the birth of Jesus.
Liberation theology rightly claims tells us that Jesus has a preferential option for the poor. Both the Hebrew texts and the New Testament emphasize care and compassion for the orphan, widow, poor, and others living outside the power structures of his day. In the fourth chapter of Jesus reads this very passage from the prophet:
He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the synagogue assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the synagogue was fixed on him.21 He began to explain to them, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.”Luke 4:17-21 CEB
This is our task if we are to follow the Christ. Like Jesus, our task requires sacrifice. Bringing good news to the poor, the afflicted, and the oppressed has always been threatening to the powerful.
The way we characterize Santa Claus with our children reflects our image of God. The Santa we create for our children mirrors how we perceive God.
This was manifest for me in two recent exchanges with my regular grocery cashier. In the first, she joked about the toughness of my job as a local pastor. “You’ve got a tough boss to please,” she kidded me. A few days later we were talking about her three-year-old’s behavior. “She’s behaving better because she’s afraid Santa won’t bring her anything. I think I freaked her out last night, though. I told her the elf-on-the-shelf I put over her bed was telling Santa all the bad things she’s done.” Indeed, in a photo the mother shared of her daughter’s rigid body and suspicious eyes posing beside Santa’s spying Elf looked to me like a child frightened of an invisible deity.
Leaving with my carrots, grapes, and potatoes I thought about the presentation of Santa Claus as the arbiter of childhood justice. Many adults create an image of Santa of a magical being focused on judging naughty or nice. They use him as a threat to get compliance from children. “You better behave or Santa won’t bring you anything!” This image is much like the God created by rigid, rule-bound versions of Christianity.
Like the old man with a naughty and nice list, the harsh and severe God of fundamentalist Christianity is a demanding task master. God’s love like Santa’s toys are earned by following regulations at the expense of our personality and humanity. The path to Christmas and God’s embrace is narrow with many pitfalls. Love the wrong person, go to Hell. Perceive God differently than fundamentalists, languish for eternity. Let your child nature get the better of you, lose a gift.
But not all St. Nicks are about lists. In some families, Santa is an opportunity to give with as much abandon as budgets and good sense allow. Santa gives gifts because it is in Santa’s nature to do so. Santa becomes a teacher of how to give generously. Adults give children opportunities to pick out toys to donate to Toys for Tots and to choose the color of socks to give to the local homeless shelter. This Santa is about extravagant love.
The Santa of generosity and giving reflects a very different understanding of God. God loves flamboyantly, extends undeserved grace, and lures us to live in a community of love and justice, becoming our true selves, because that is the nature of God. God desires us to be generous, loving, and compassionate with all people, especially those rejected by society. Christmas marks the beginning of the story of the Bethlehem babe who will grow up to expand circles, stand with those on society’s margins, and love as God dreams we can all love.