Friday, December 22, 2017

Unsettling Bible Angels

We have all seen it. A child is coaxed onto Santa’s lap, and then the child begins screaming and frantically trying to escape.  Truth is, some children find a strange loud man in a bright red suit and long white beard frightening.
The angels in Luke’s Gospel are a bit like that.  When an angel confronts Zechariah in the Temple, he is startled and gripped with fear.  The angel reassures him not to be afraid.  When the angel Gabriel approaches Mary, she is greatly troubled and wonders what this means for her.  Again the angel tries to calm her natural fears.  When an angel appears to the shepherds in the night, they are terrified; and the angel again tells them not to be afraid.

Why are these people afraid of angels?  They are fearful because these are real Bible angels, not the domesticated little kewpie dolls of popular culture.
In our culture, angels have become background music for our modern dance of self-indulgence.  They guide lost children home and protect us from robbers.  They stay busy rescuing us from car accidents and fixing flat tires.  They even find lost keys; no job is too trivial.  One cynic asked what angels did before the advent of the car.    In general they give us what we want, a bit like Santa Claus without the beard and loud suit.

In the Bible, angels are as fearsome as they are comforting.  They guard the Garden of Eden with flaming swords and wrestle with Jacob all night.  In the book of Revelation they battle dragons.  They are as often warriors as deliverers.
Bible angels bring messages of correction as well messages of comfort.  They sometimes have hard and challenging things to say because they speak of what God wants and not of what we want.  These are Bible angels.

So Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds get a bit nervous when an angel comes close. 

The angels announce that the presence of God is about to get a lot more immediate, for a Savior, who is both Christ and Lord, has been born.  This inevitably will force a choice in people’s lives.  If you think the angels’ presence is intrusive, just wait until this child grows up and begins demanding a level of commitment from people that they had not anticipated giving, even the religious among them.

For now we are all safe.  Jesus is just an apparently harmless cooing baby in a manger.  The angel Gabriel makes clear to Mary, though,  that it will not long remain this way:

He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
     he has filled the hungry with good things,

    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
   according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:51-55)
These angels are a bit intrusive, but this is just the beginning of the disturbance.  If you are proud and powerful, you are going to have to make some tough choices.  If you hunger for the things of God, you are in for some pleasant surprises.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Friday, December 8, 2017

Listening is a Gift

When I was young and someone around me began a sentence with “remember when,” I knew
things were about to get boring.  Now I have become one of those people of a certain stage of life who begins sentences with “remember when.”  My sons, in the patience that comes with young adulthood, no longer roll their eyes but hear me out.

We are at that time of year when we do a lot of reminiscing.  We use the holidays as mile markers in our journey, such as our first Christmas together, our last Thanksgiving before the stroke, the New Year’s Eve when they announced their engagement, the last holiday before his death, the year we got our kids the puppy that knocked the Christmas tree over, the time I got my first bicycle, the holiday she did not come home for the holidays for the first time.  The holidays are a time to catalogue our joys and sorrows.  Depending upon the hand life has dealt us, they go by far too rapidly or they cannot be over soon enough.
Jonathan Tran, in his book The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory, observed that memories come to us as part of a broader narrative; we remember in context.  He writes:  “Even if we had 'the facts,’ before narration facts remain unintelligible [p. 131].”  Communities, be they nations or families or churches, are bound together by memories embedded in narrative, by stories.  Tran writes: “Rather than historical facts and ‘the way it was,’ communities tell stories and through these stories—the past configured by way of narrative—communities remember.”  You can tell when you are in a community of people if they are telling stories, many of them already familiar; nonetheless they are listening patiently to one another.  A group of people who listen to one another’s stories, many of them shared stories, is a good indicator of community.
Remembering the past is not the same as being captive to the past.  Telling stories can be a way of disarming the power of a past we can never really forget.   It is healthy to let memory have its place.

She asked if I would come by on the first anniversary of her husband’s death; I had done his funeral service.  We drank coffee, ate some cake, and then she handed to me the order of service from the funeral.  She asked that I read through it with her.  We did so together, and then she put both copies back in a drawer.  She went on to tell me about the trip she was about to take.  She wanted me to know that her life was moving on; she was not a prisoner of that loss.  Openly and actively remembering her loss liberated this woman to embrace the present.  She carried her memory; the memory did not carry her.

Listening to one another’s stories is a gift we can give to one another this holiday season.  If someone tells us the same story many times, perhaps it is because that story is important to them.    So as sentences begin with “remember when” and we know what will follow, let us listen with warmth knowing this a good gift to give to one another this Christmas season.
Jim Kelsey-Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State