Saturday, December 24, 2016

Breath of Heaven - A Christmas Prayer

"How will this be," Mary asked, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

I have wandered many moonless nights, cold and lonely, with a babe inside.
And I wonder what I've done. Holy Father, you have come and chosen me now to carry your son.
I am waiting in a silent prayer. I am frightened by the load I bear. In a world as cold as stone, must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now.
Be with me now.
Breath of Heaven, hold me together, be forever near me, Breath of Heaven.
Breath of Heaven, lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness for you are holy, Breath of Heaven.
Do you wonder, as you watch my face, if a wiser one should have had my place?
But I offer all I am for the mercy of your plan.
Help me be strong.
Help me be.
Help me.
Breath of Heaven...

The English word spirit come from the Latin spiritus, which means "breath." In the New Testament, the Greek work pneuma means "breath" or "wind," but when it has the Greek word for "Holy" in front of it, it always refers to the Holy Spirit. So, when we speak to the Spirit, we are speaking to and about the breath of God, the Breath of Heaven.

I was a little surprised this December when I learned that the Chancel Choir at my church, where we usually sing very "proper" and "higher church" music, would be singing on Christmas Eve a piece written by Amy Grant. For those of you who are uninitiated, there has never been a bigger star on the contemporary Christian music front. Not Sandi Patty. Not Michael W. Smith. Not the Imperials. Not Chris Tomlin.

Many of you know that I am from Nashville. If you come close to guessing my age and then do the math, you know generally who was in my circle growing up. No, Amy Grant and I were not friends, but we had many mutual friends. She is a little older than I am. She went to my sister school, and while I am sure that she would not remember me, we were often in the same place at the same time. Look at this picture:
Yes, this is a picture, from my seventh grade annual, of a young, un-made-up Amy Grant, with hair parted down the middle, wearing clogs and leaning on a stool, strumming her guitar and singing in my school assembly program. I doubt she shows this picture to many of her fans these days. From looking at it, there is no real way to guess what Amy was to become. Oh, we all thought Amy was cool, but it is one thing to sing on a high school stage in front of friends; it is another to become who Amy Grant is today.

The song my choir sang tonight at the Christmas Eve service was "Breath of Heaven," which Amy subtitled "Mary's Song." I think there is a lesson here in Amy's picture.

I don't know how old Mary was. Some scholars posit that she was no more than thirteen. That does not seem right to me, as I read her words in Luke 1, but it does not really matter. She may have been the age of one of my children now, but however old she was, she was a backwater Nazarene maiden. If we had a picture of her from her seventh-grade yearbook, there would be no real way to guess what Mary was to become. She was obviously remarkable. And yet, it is one thing to wax poetic with the Magnificat when the glow of the angel's appearance is still fresh on your face; it is another thing to be nine months pregnant, traveling in first century conditions, unmarried, and unwelcome. It is not too much for the song to describe her as frightened, wondering, alone, prayerful.

But the piece we sang ... Amy's song ... Mary's prayer ... is not the prayer of the desperate. It is the prayer of the faithful. She may not know why she was chosen, but she knows that she was chosen. She may not know if a wiser one could have done the job, but she knows that she is doing the job. She may not know where her path will go, but she knows whom she wants on the path with her.

She wants the Holy Spirit. Not some indistinct, namby-pamby sense that the cosmos is somehow behind her. Not a passing interest from a far-off supreme being. No, she is walking with her God, who is present and real, the part of the trinity who is responsible for her pregnancy in the first place. She asks for the one traveling with her to breathe on her with holiness and power, to be the constant reminder of the presence of God. She asks for the Breath of Heaven.

Her prayer is our prayer. Lighten my darkness. Be with me now. Hold me together. Pour over me your holiness, for you are holy.

The prayer is all our prayer. It is not just at Christmas, but maybe it is especially at Christmas that we all feel pain, grief, abandonment, the seeming impossibility of what lies before us. We do not feel like the chosen of God. We feel no more special than a teenage girl in bad shoes and no makeup just doing our best to sing a song.

But still, we offer all we are.

Breath of Heaven, hold me together. Be forever near me.

Breath of Heaven, help me be strong.

Help me be.

Help me.

Breath of Heaven...

Merry Christmas

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

This World Is Not My Home

I look around, and I do not recognize a lot of what I see. I am out of place. I do not belong. As a Christian, I feel more than ever a kinship with those brothers and sisters who first articulated this truism: "This world is not my home. I'm just passing through."

I have written before about being an alien, but that blog was more of a personal confession of my own idiosyncrasies than it was an understanding of the Christian's place in the world.

Today, I am not just an alien because people do not understand me. I am an alien because this world is running away from me.

Everywhere you look, the world looks different. I am not going to catalog the changes that are going on in our society. You know them, and if you need a list of how laws, schools, entertainment, politics, and even many popular churches have changed radically from what we knew even ten years ago, Google will help you out. Think where our world has gone on issues as varied as gay marriage and diplomatic recognition of Cuba. Listen to the political discussions and pay attention to what local school boards are doing. The world is spinning differently today. These changes are of course the result, in large part, of a new respect for diversity combined with a rejection of many traditional "conservative Christian values." They are the offspring of expanding freedoms and decreasing tolerance for disagreement. They spring both from widening understandings and narrowing acceptance. They result from sin and from growth. They are, in short, proximately caused by both evil and benign societal evolution. Regardless of the source of the seismic shifts in our world, we simply do not and cannot live like we used to. For many of us, the recognition that we march not just to a different drummer but in fact in an entirely different band playing a separate show for a different audience becomes more and more of a reality. For some, this realization spurred a political campaign that would have been unthinkable not that long ago. Many are simply shocked by the world around them.

A number of things come to mind.

First, we upper-middle-class American Christians can join the club. Our brothers and sisters around the world - and many in our own nation - have known for generations the troubles of living among the peoples of this world and the animosity the world holds toward the truth of the gospel. (There is a reason the nineteenth-century African-American experience produced the spiritual.) Frankly, many of us have been too long lulled by a society that has given lip service to the things of God and by people who allowed our steeples and our blue laws and our public prayers to exist in relative comfort. Our values have influenced, if not controlled, the surface of the surrounding political and educational and entertainment worlds enough that we could go along our merry way, choosing to write a letter to the editor about a radical proposal here or complain about sex and language in movies there and otherwise live in comparative satisfaction. We have not really had to contemplate being a disrespected minority before. That day is past.

Second, we can identify with characters in the Bible we have studied for years. Suddenly, being a stranger in a strange land has new meaning. Now, reading that Israel is going where God's people have not been before is real. All of a sudden, apostles cowering in an upper room is not so laughable. Maybe John was on to something when he wrote Revelation in code to escape government censorship.

Third, we can wake up. This world has never been our home. For decades, because our services have been tolerated and even attended by those with smiles on their faces and Billy Graham's sermons have been televised, we have too often felt that God's message did not need us, that we lived in a "Christian nation," and that all was well. How wrong we have been. God have mercy.

Fourth, we have to decide how to react. Shaking our fists at the coming tidal wave is a waste of time, not to mention being embarrassingly futile. Demanding that the clock be turned back has no effect. Expecting a broken world to act as though it were not broken and hoping that we can continue to pretend that "those people" do not exist are not options.

Fifth, we simply must do some prayerful soul-searching and study. We need to listen to God explain to us, patiently as always, how we have been wrong. Not all of the changes are bad. Some of the "radical" things that threaten us may cause us discomfort because we have been fat and happy in the wrong place for a long time. Maybe we will be prompted to reexamine some Of our views. It is entirely possible that, like the Israelites and the Pharisees, we have - with the best of intentions - created God in our image and squeezed out of our view the possibility that God's kingdom looks different from what we have conjured. Again, may the Lord have mercy on us.

So, what to do?
• We can build our walls higher and retreat to Fortress Church, letting the world around us go to hell while we wait for Jesus to come back.
• We can stomp our feet and follow reactionary candidates and demand that our (now minority) values continue to be recognized and honored.
• We can take the world on in a cage fight, matching our tracts and sermons and well-meaning calling out of sin against its indifference and antagonism. We may be correct on many issues, but we won't like the result of the battle.

• We can pray for the peace and prosperity of this land where God has led us. It may not be our eternal home, but God has placed us here for the foreseeable future. Like exiled Judah in the land of Babylon, we have a choice of crying by the the waters or blooming where we are planted, loving and serving God even as we love and serve the people with whom we find ourselves.
• We can work for change in the world, (maybe with a political vote where appropriate, but also) offering cups of cold water, serving banquets where all are welcome, and making sure our own traditions are submissive to what God is doing.
• We can present a witness that has some hope of actually convincing anybody. In this century, simply saying "for the Bible tells me so" is unconvincing and unimportant to many. We need to understand why God's way is the best way so that we can articulate truth and debate with patience, confidence, and genuine love for those who disagree. Of course scripture is critical to our argument, but we must comprehend and explain it, not just quote it and swing it like a baseball bat.

This world is not our home, but we are here now. The prince of this world will no longer allow our comfort to continue, and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe every time the Supreme Court or the local school board makes a decision that makes our skin crawl, we will be moved not to anger and resignation but to service and to sharing the gospel. Perhaps recognizing that our understanding of God's view of sexuality or kindness or taking care of the poor is not the majority view - indeed not even held by many people we know at all - will prompt us not to despair but to a search for opportunity to engage our neighbors without being obnoxious.

Read Acts 18. In Corinth, Paul's discouragement was natural as he saw his message falling on deaf ears and his work being unappreciated. God promised him His presence, but God did not let Paul off the hook. He was to stay put for a time and continue doing what God wanted him to do. Likewise, our understandable frustration win our society is not a license to quit or to withdraw or otherwise to be anything other than exactly what God wants us to be.

Our world, and our nation, are not what they were. We are in Babylon, or in Corinth, or in Texas or South Carolina or Tennessee or Washington or California or Maryland or Illinois or Massachusetts or New York. And God is right there with us, unmoved by court cases or bathroom laws or marriage edicts or school policies. Let us render unto Caesar what is Caesar's; and by all means let us render unto God what is God's

This world is not our home, but we are certainly passing through. We are eternal beings experiencing a temporary human existence. Make the most of it. We are here for a reason.


We are in the desert. A desert is a dry place. Nothing much grows. It is hot - not pleasant but maddeningly, drainingly hot. Scorching. When...