Tag Archives: Jesus

Christmas: Exceptions to the rule make the best stories

soul-eyesWe have faith in the unexpected. After every earthquake, for example, we pray for the exceptions—for people to defy the odds and survive under the rubble for days.

We hope for miracles. We pray the person we know with cancer will be the one to beat the odds.

We love exceptions to the rule, the people who make good against all odds, like a baby worshipped in spite of being born to an unwed mother in the harsh culture of patriarchal society.

That’s why we can’t stop telling the Christmas story. No matter how you interpret it, the story is about faith in the unexpected, hope for miracles and love for exceptions to the rule—all the things that captivate us. Now matter how you feel about it, we can learn from it.

No matter what you believe about how Mary came to be pregnant, she was an unwed mother in a time when unwed pregnant women were shunned or stoned. Neither happened to her. She was an exception to the rule. No matter what you believe about who Jesus‘ real father was, he was an illegitimate child at a time when such children would have few prospects. Even before he could walk or talk, Jesus broke the rules.

Jesus captivates us because he lived making exceptions to the rule. He ate with the unclean, walked with the lepers, preached on the Sabbath, and turned the tables on religious rituals that prevented everyone from participating. If there’s anything we can learn from his life, and it’s a lesson too many Christian churches today forget, it is that love is more important than rules.

When forced to make a choice between the most compassionate option and the most obedient option, Jesus chose compassion.

A woman gets pregnant out of wedlock? Love her anyway. A child is born out of wedlock? Love it anyway. A man is disenfranchised from society? Eat with him anyway. A woman has a communicable disease? Walk with her anyway. Someone wants to learn or play or work even though it’s a holy day? Teach them, laugh with them or help them anyway. And, for goodness sake, open your doors and your ceremonies with unrestricted compassion for all people.

The Christmas story, no matter how you interpret it, reminds us to value exceptions to the rule. They make the best stories, and who knows what greatness a compassionate exception might lead to?

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1 Corinthians 13:13

13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

What is so darned interesting about sheep, and why are they lost?

My blog statistics show that one item I posted almost three years ago gets more hits than any other. Every week that post attracts the highest number of readers to my site—still. And I didn’t even write it. (My ego tries not to take that too personally.)

The post entitled “When we are the lost sheep” includes a sermon written Rev. Ellie Barrington about the Luke 15 parable of the lost sheep.

Often I wonder what kind of readers land on that post. What is so darned interesting about sheep?

Is it people who feel like “lost sheep” and need some solace? Is it clergy seeking sermon ideas? Maybe some kids in need of a sheep picture for a school project? I don’t know, but it’s crossed my mind more than once that if I wanted to increase readership of my blog, I would just have to put sheep in the title (see above), write the word sheep often in bold letters (sheep, sheep, sheep,) and include sheep pictures.

lost-sheepTo my credit, the word sheep didn’t appear again in any of my posts until Tuesday when I wrote about desire paths.

Last week I visited the country home of a colleague. On my return trip along her remote gravel road, I drove beside sheep walking their desire path. First, I noticed the sheep. “Cool! Sheep!” I thought. (I don’t see sheep every day.) Second, I realized there was no fence on the field. “Geez, I’d better be careful a sheep doesn’t run out in front of me,” I thought.  Third, I took a closer look at them. The line of sheep followed a leader sheep, that followed the path, that led them to a safe place. “They are not going anyway but along that path,” I realized.

I started to wonder, if sheep follow one another blindly and stick close together, how does one get lost, and why does there need to be a parable about it? Every time I thought of the lost sheep parable before, I imagined a sheep just wandering off—going walkabout, if you will. But sheep don’t wander off, so why are they lost?

I did some research. Sheep101.com informed me that, indeed, the instinct to play follow the leader is hardwired into the brain of sheep. They don’t think about it. They can’t help themselves from sticking closed to the sheep in front of them. The paths they walk are not straight. They walk winding trails so they can see behind them, first with one eye and then with the other, to watch for predators. Their survival instincts prompt them to hang together in a flock to avoid these predators. “A sheep will become highly agitated if it is separated from the group,” the site says. And then there’s this: when threatened by a predator, sheep flee, and in doing so, sometimes a sheep gets lost.

The survival instincts of these social animals mirror those of humans. We stick together. We follow each other, even if it’s sometimes not the wisest thing to do. We walk a winding path and watch for predators. If threatened, our need to flee overrides all other survival instincts. In fleeing, sometimes we get lost.

Back to the parable.

Jesus is hanging with people of dubious character. The Pharisees (such sticklers about rules) do not approve. Through this parable Jesus gently tells them: “Look, we have some highly agitated people here. They had to flee because they were threatened. The rest of you have safety in numbers, so I’m not going to worry about you for a while. I’ll try to get these people back with us so we can celebrate walking the winding path together.”

Sheep on the path

Sheep on the path (Photo credit: Olivier Bruchez)

Easter Saturday: overlooked but, oh, so important

hummingbird-of-hopeOne of the most memorable Easter sermons I ever heard preached had nothing with Good Friday and the complexities of who killed Jesus and why. It didn’t mention the empty tomb or celebrate the renewed presence of Jesus on Easter morning. It didn’t really have much to do with Jesus at all. It was about Easter Saturday and what the people did in the time in between.

Really, it was about us, and what we do with the overlooked but, oh, so important time in between tragedy and triumph.

Easter Saturday: the metaphorical day after loss. The day when the pain is raw and fresh, and we don’t know yet about the joy to come. During the time in between we can’t see joy. We can’t see how it will take form in our lives. We look to the future and see more of the same.

The preacher of this sermon urged us to remember the Easter story during difficult times. When we survive the initial shock and turmoil and find ourselves in the desert of grief that follows, we can keep the flicker of hope alive.

Be watchful. Look for it. Joy will come with the dawn some Easter morning.

The first Christmas gifts were not reciprocal

many-ChristmasesYou know the scenario: Someone you know and love, but don’t usually exchange gifts with, suddenly appears before you holding out a brightly wrapped Christmas gift. She beams with joy, because she has found the perfect thing for you. She saw it in a store, thought of you and just had to get it.

Do you receive the gift with unqualified gratitude? Or do you think, “Oh, no! I don’t have anything for her”?

My friend, Ellie, reminded me a few weeks ago that the gifts in the Christmas story were not reciprocal. In one of the Christmas parables, wise travellers brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The Bible doesn’t go into detail about what Mary and Joseph might have said upon receiving such valuable gifts, but I don’t think it went like this:

Joseph: Mary, the wise men are on their way, and they’re all carrying something.

Mary: Carrying something? What could that be?

Joseph: I’m not sure, but one of them has something shiny. It looks like gold.

Mary: Gold! Oh, no. And I didn’t get anything for them. Do we have something in our baggage that we could wrap up quickly?

From what we can glean from the Matthew version of the Christmas parable (there are no wise men in the Luke version), Mary and Joseph received the first Christmas gift with grace and gratitude. To do otherwise would have made the whole situation awkward, and would have deprived the wise visitors of the joy of giving.

This Christmas, when someone beams with joy as he gives you that perfect something that he brought to you out of love, receive it with unqualified gratitude. Don’t deprive him of the joy of giving.