Friday, December 23, 2016

Bless this Mess

Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:

All the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord. - Psalm 22:27

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. - John 1:9

Two-year reading texts: Psalm 146:6-10; 2 Kings 20:1-21; Acts 7:4-16

Today's scriptures remind me of the old "Bless this mess" cross-stitch art that hangs in lots of homes. I have no idea where the idea started, but I imagine a skilled and competent 19th century woman, trying her best to make a nice home for her family, finding that it's really just impossible to keep it all together perfectly, and coping with humor and creativity and a simple prayer. "Bless this mess" is a pretty good theology of grace! And it fits with the way God has worked in human life throughout history.

The verses of the day both come to people who are living in less-than-perfect situations. Psalm 22 is the psalm quoted by Jesus from the cross; it begins "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and goes downhill from there. In planning worship, I like to include this psalm during the "stripping of the altar" at the end of the Maundy Thursday service. There seem to be two alternating voices: one that cries out to God for current suffering, another that finds comfort and solace in trusting God. Both are given equal weight in the psalm, though the voice of faith gets the last word, in a section that includes today's verse. John 1:9 is from the majestic introduction to John's gospel, which will be read on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. John gives us the loftiest view of the coming of Jesus into the world. No stables or shepherds or wise men or even babies, but Jesus as God, the eternal Word, the giver of life, the light of the world. Another powerful verse highlights the strength of Christ's light against the darkness of the world: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

So these words of faith and trust and hope come in contexts of suffering and darkness. There is a mess that sorely needs to be blessed! And God chooses to do that. This happens over and over in our human condition. In a way, we are all like the first person who cross-stitched "Bless this mess." We lose our illusions that life can be perfect. We recognize our need for help. And we trust in God as the One we turn to for that help.

In the two-year readings for today, Psalm 146 is a psalm of praise, whose praise comes from acknowledging God's light in our darkness. We hear "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help," but "Happy [or blessed] are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God." And we get a number of examples of God's love and mercy and compassion in different kinds of need. 2 Kings 20 gives us another story of the messed-up lives of the kings, where shortly after God has removed the immense threat of Assyria, King Hezekiah shows both faith and foolishness. In Acts 7, Stephen is on trial, about to become the first Christian martyr and set a record for shortest time as a Christian leader, and his testimony is to re-tell the whole story of God's action among God's people from the time of Abraham on. He will end up pointing out the mess God's people have made of God's work, and his opponents won't take his judgment kindly.

Stephen inspires us to take these ancient stories of God and human beings, and hold them up against our own lives, to learn from them, to recognize our own mess, and to carry on the faith by looking to God, and God alone, for our help. Today, we live in an age of ideological conflict. I have my image of how the world should be, and you have yours, and we each judge each other's to be flatly wrong. We don't tolerate differences. We don't appreciate that other people, also made in God's image but finding themselves in different circumstances in the world, might legitimately come to different conclusions. We don't have enough humility to see that the world is more complex than we can grasp, and that our ideas about ideological perfection are always too small. And so we label, and we fight against each other, red vs. blue, liberal vs. conservative, American vs. foreigner, urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, black vs. white, yadda yadda yadda. What a mess. We need to be blessed! And our biggest danger is that we will look for our blessing not from God, but from the same ideological mess we're already drowning in.

On one hand, I have a bad feeling about the time we're living in. We seem to be consistently choosing to descend further into division and distrust and violence. On the other hand, scripture and history show that this is the way it's always been. The mess lies within our basic human nature. And scripture keeps pointing us back to God, with a hope that one day, "all the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord" fully and completely. And even now, in the midst of the darkness of our mess, we are given the great gift of knowing God, through Christ, "the true light, which enlightens everyone." The blessing of Christmas is the news that he has already come into the world! Even now, we can choose his way over darkness. Even while we cry out in despair with one voice, we can lift up another voice of faith. May we watch and wait for that day when the light completely defeats the darkness. And until then, may our mess be blessed.

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