Tag Archives: Christmas

Advent 17: Camping with Saint John

That evening, we went to the address John had given us. As I thought, it wasn’t a house. It was a campground not far from the mall. The sign said that the campground was closed, but even from the parking lot, I could see a couple of tents attempting, unsuccessfully, to hide from view. And a small fire.

fireAnd John. He was sitting by the fire like he was the one keeping it burning.

We were a hundred yards away so I couldn’t see details. But I knew it was John. There’s something about the way he carries himself. Confident without being arrogant.

We sat in the car. It was warm. And I wanted to see what was happening.

A young couple crawled out of one of the tents. She was expecting. Another guy crawled out of the other tent. They walked toward the fire.

Apparently, John had a pot in the fire. He reached for a bowl, filled it, and handed it to her. John took another bowl and filled it for one of the guys.

John stood up. He looked across the empty campground, across the parking lot, straight at us. He tilted his head in what may have been a nod. And turned back toward the fire and the young people and spread out his arms, just for a moment. And they all sat down.

We left, not saying a word. A little later, I heard Nancy whispering. “God, hide them in your hand.” After some recent stories about homeless camps being cleared out, I understood her fear.

When I asked him about it a couple days later, all he said was, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

That night, we put some blankets in the car and went back to the campground. It was empty. “Loving one another is going to take some looking,” I said.

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Advent 16: Saint John and the geography lesson.

I got a note from a friend. She’d been visiting the mall late one evening. She said that she had looked for Saint John but missed him, “though we didn’t go through the Macy’s or Penney’s mattress departments where I assume he sleeps.”

I hadn’t thought about that.

“Rabbi, where are you staying?” I said when we saw him next.

“Not here,” he said.

He gave me an address.

We talked about the importance of geography for people. “Where do you live?’ is a question we ask often. I think it’s a way of sorting people. If we know where they are from, we can anticipate how they will think and act.

“Nathanael discounted Jesus because he was from Nazareth,” I said. “And you, I mean, the disciples were very hesitant about the woman in Samaria.”

John nodded. “For good or ill, every group of people tends to evaluate every other group of people from somewhere else. In fact, that tendency is at the heart of Advent.”

“No room in the inn?” I said, hesitantly.

John shook his head. “Don’t get wrapped up in the little details of Christmas,” he said with a gentle firmness. “Advent is the expectation of deliverance, of royal peace, of holy authority. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ It’s more than the story of a wandering couple or a transient rabbi.”

“It’s the construction company’s owner moving into the city he just built?” I said, anxious to offer a new metaphor.

lights“No, it’s the true light that gives light to everyone finally coming into the world,” John said. “Not everyone recognized him at first. But slowly we did. And by that light we saw that he was part of a geography that was completely different than ours, yet ours was part of his.”

John stopped.

“You get consumed by today’s details. You need to keep the whole story in mind.” And he walked into a store. I looked up at the sign and laughed: “Things Remembered.”

Advent 15: Saint John and Christmas Performance.

“Can we go back to talking about expectations?” I said.

John had pointed to the whole “meaning of Christmas” perspective, to the expectancy of the one bringing good news to the poor. But it didn’t solve a struggle that I kept having. I was still wrestling with the practical implications of doing stuff at Christmas.

“Go ahead,” John finally said. I realized that I had been so caught up in my thoughts that I forgot the people walking with me.

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head to clear my thoughts.

IMG_2220.JPG“I think part of the reason that I don’t care for Christmas is that I’ve spent so many Christmas’s getting ready for events at church. Christmas programs. Advent series. Christmas eve services. It often feels like I can’t stop to think about Christmas, about Christ, until after the last event on Christmas Eve. And by then, it’s too late.”

Nancy nodded. “Even when he’s home, he’s thinking ahead to the next event, the next performance. Sometimes I think that the only way he’s really home for Christmas IS in his dreams.”

John thought for a bit. “I think that the word that’s got you trapped is the word ‘performance.’ Somewhere, you got caught up in performing for Christmas and it’s taken the place of celebrating Christmas. The deep, honest, participation in joy and grief and people.”

He laughed. “I think Jesus was talking about you one day. In that conversation where Jesus talked about the religious leaders ignoring the scriptures that pointed to him, Jesus said, ‘How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet you make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?’”

“I thought I was thinking about God,” I said. “I mean, as a third grader with a fourth grade part in the Christmas program, was I really getting the kind of praise confused?”

John stopped and looked at me with his clear, piercing eyes. “All those years, how often were you thinking about participating with, and how often were you performing for?”

He and Nancy walked on. They had their own conversation.

I stood in the middle of the crowd for a very long time.

Advent 14: Expectations and expectancy.

Nancy and I were talking about why we don’t care for Christmas. It’s not that we are against the Incarnation of Christ. It’s not that we are protesting the commercialization of the holiday. It’s not that we are refusing to take sides in the “Holiday/Christmas” debate.

IMG_2696We realized that it’s about the expectations. There are scheduling expectations, there are emotional expectations, there are gifting expectations. There are even expectations about not getting caught up in the expectations.

“Help,” I said to Saint John. “Can you sort out the struggle with expectations?”

I asked him because John is a pretty good person to talk with about expectancy. He grew up in Malachi-shaped Israel, expecting a prophet like Elijah. He found that prophet in John the baptizer who talked about expecting someone else. He followed the one John pointed to, expecting the kingdom to be established. He expected the resurrection of Jesus. He was told to expect the return of that king, first by Jesus, then again as he took down the Revelation. His whole life was about expectations.

“There’s a difference between expectations and expectancy,” John said. “Jesus almost never lived up to expectations. In fact, he was talking to the religious leaders one day. It was right after the healing we talked about yesterday. He talked to them about how they were ignoring all the things that pointed to him. And he said, ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life;  and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.’ ”

John started laughing as he was quoting Jesus. “Imagine going to people who are seminary trained, who have memorized the Bible, who have staked their careers on their religious pursuit of telling people how to measure up and saying, ‘I do not think that word means what you think it means.’”

I must have looked a little stressed. John put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m not too worried about you. There were lots of people who read the words and understood them. That’s what I mean by the difference between expectations and expectancy. The religious leaders lived by expectations and Jesus didn’t measure up. But others lived in expectancy. We were waiting for a person who would fulfill the promises, who would bring hope and healing. We were pretty sure that Isaiah was pointing to someone real when he quoted,

‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.’”

I had to look up those last words for myself because John forgot he was talking to me. He slipped into Hebrew while he was quoting Isaiah. But that was okay. Expectancy can do that. Living in the freedom of hope rather than the chains of expectations can let you forget where you are.

Advent 13: Saint John by the fountain.

IMG_2400.JPGThere’s a fountain at our mall. During the day, the fountain runs, keeping the reflecting pool around it stirred up.  There are always people sitting on the benches around the pool, waiting for something. Or someone. Kids toss coins into the pool, which are gathered and given to Habitat for Humanity and the Rescue Mission. You could say it is a healing kind of fountain.

Early in the morning, the fountain is quiet. The benches are mostly empty, except for a couple guys who wait for walking buddies. And, this morning, Saint John of the Mall. The fountain is three-fourths of the way around our path. And I’d been wondering if John was at the mall this morning. We didn’t see him until we stopped at the blood pressure machines which face the water. As I sat there, I noticed John, talking with one of the men. The man’s cane was resting on the bench next to him.

Our blood pressure was fine. We walked toward John and the man. I heard John say, “Do you want to get well?”

The man talked about how long his knee had been hurting. He talked about how hard it was to get a doctor to listen. He talked about how much work it was to get help. He talked about a friend who dragged him along to the mall, just to get out of the house.

John asked him again: “Do you want to get well?”

I thought the man was tired of being picked on, so I walked up to them and greeted John. He introduced us to the man, Jakov. John said, “I’ll be back after a bit. Think about my question.” And then he started walking with us.

“We overheard your conversation,” I said. “Do you ever get frustrated when people make excuses rather than answering you? I mean, what would happen if he demonstrated a little faith? Wouldn’t you want to heal him then?”

I was thinking about the time that Jesus healed a man by a pool. And the time that Peter and John healed a man after Jesus  had ascended.

John scowled at me, just for a moment. “You don’t know the text very well. Both of those times, people were healed without any great belief at all. The only thing they did was to look up at the person talking with them. Healing’s not a reward for faith.”

We walked for a bit.

John started to smile, slowly. “In fact, I’ll say to you what Jesus told that man he healed. ‘Stop sinning.’ It’s what he usually said after he healed people. As if the physical healing was what the people cared most about, and the relationship with God was what Jesus cared most about.”

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From a story in John 5.