Roger Lovette writes about cultural concerns, healthy faith and matters of the heart.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
Could God be in our Details?
Every once in a while somebody will say: "I loved the service all except the announcements. Someone told me it was like scraping your fingernails down a blackboard. You come to church to worship. The announcements spoiled the whole thing." I understand perfectly. ''How Great Thou Art'' is light years away from ''Would those stragglers who didn't sign your pledge card pick up your card today and fill it out so the church won't go under." There have been times when I would have given anything to put a moratorium on the announcements. Do you have any idea how many people through the years have slipped me a note as I was walking into church and says, "Preacher , you got to make this announcement." And as I sit in the chair into church and says: waiting to the service to begin I read the announcement: ''Don't forget to tell everybody to save all their Quaker Oats boxes for Bible School. We'll need about a hundred. Tell them to cut off the tops smoothly and not to crush them. Bring them outside the church office and put them in the Tide box. We need them by next Monday morning at 9:00 sharp." There are a few times when you want to run outside the church screaming.
Over the years I've changed my mind about announcements in church. I'm beginning to think they anchor us. They tie the church to reality. They connect us with the world outside these doors. Somehow what we do here is linked to what happens next Friday morning at the Fire House Ministry or reminding someone that if you are going on that mission trip you have until Wednesday afternoon to sign up. Or please bring your blankets to the church and put them in the box out there for Katrina victims. And every time we make these announcements it brings us all back to the real world out there where we all do battle when we leave here.
John's Christmas story is unlike all the other stories. 'There are no Shepherds, no Bethlehem, no Herod or Wise Men. Why there is no Joseph or Mary. There's not a donkey within a hundred mites. His story goes like this: ''In the beginning was the word... '' It is as beautiful as any verse in the Bible. And in the middle of all this beauty there breaks in this announcement: ''The word became flesh '' The word became what? The word became flesh. Sarx. John did not say the word entered flesh. Like the Exorcist, some force just comes in and takes over. No, not at all. This gospel says in those first verses that the word became flesh.
The Greeks couldn't believe it. They wanted the Logos. the Word without all the embellishments. Forget the announcements. Forget the troubled world. In the beginning was the Word. isn't that beautiful? But John couldn't leave it alone. He had to spoil it. The word became flesh. Flesh was sinful. There was no way God would enter flesh, they said. So there arose in the church those that cushioned the blow. The body was evil. Everybody knew that. It was a burden. Lust, arthritis, back pains--depression-old age--weaknesses-death. How could God possibly dwell in flesh? And so they worked it all out. It was the first heresy of the church. This is what they said. Jesus appeared to be man. Emphasis on: the appear. He did not feel pain, hunger, weariness or sorrow. He was not a real bonafide man you see-he just looked like a man.
But John comes back with this announcement. He steps up to the microphone and clears his throat and says: "Excuse me but: The word became flesh." And if this wasn't enough his gospel would talk about a Jesus who got tired and sat on the ledge of a well and asked for water of a prostitute because he was thirsty. He was tempted by the devil. He would weep over the city. He got so hungry he had to eat. He would push away from the crowds because he was exhausted and had to rest. He lashed out at the moneychangers and brushed real tears from his eyes at the tomb of his dear friend the dead Lazarus. He would be hungry. And when he asked those reluctant disciples: "Will you go away?''--we see him lonely. And there toward the end he would tell the Father that he did not want to die. And then he hung on a cross and his life's blood trickled way drop by drop. Remember what he said? “My God why hast thou forsaken me?” And what John says is that this is the place-flesh--where the Holy is found. The seemingly unholy. The announcements.
Kathleen Norris moved with her husband some twenty years ago from New York City to a little border town between North and South Dakota. They moved into a small house built by her grandparents in 1923. It was the house where her Mother had grown up. It is in Lemmon, South Dakota. She said they were in the middle of nowhere. The closest Greyhound Bus stop was ninety miles away. She drove 200 miles one night to a poetry reading--and when it was over, she turned around and drove 200 miles back home. They lived a long way from a Grocery store and a longer way to any mall. She said there was a J.C. Penney's but it closed for lack of business. There is not a McDonald's or Wal-Mart in sight. And she writes about this experience in her book called simply, Dakota. In the book, over and over, she said she has learned the strangest thing out there in the wind-swept plains. She has learned that God is in the details.
Details? We talk about the big picture. Sweeping and grand. Stereophonic music in the background-or hard rock or country or elevator music or anything but quiet. And down beside our every evasion John writes in bold letters: The word became flesh. The Son of God became flesh. A particular child born to particular parents in a particular spot in a particular time. And there among the details--shepherds, animals, steaming dung, draft barn, manger in corncrib and a mean King-the light was absolutely dazzling.
Fred Craddock says that God paid us an incredible compliment. He comes as a baby. He comes in the family setting. Father, Mother, Grandparents, Cousins--the whole shebang. He comes to poverty. He comes down a side street in a town you can hardly find on the map.The result? What was the result? Most didn't get it at all. ''Sweet little Jesus boy we didn't know who you wuz." Why did so many miss it? Craddock says that God whispered and those waiting for a shout heard nothing.
It's as good a New Year's message as I know. Where shall we find him in this brand new year if we find God at all? Look close. Don't look over there. Look close. God is in the details of your life.
When PTL was in its hey-day they decorated the place with over a million lights at Christmas. People came from everywhere and drove around and just marveled at the color and the beauty of it all. Long, long lines of people just bumping into each other from everywhere--all over the whole country. And one night during Christmas, I flipped to PTL and some Preacher had just returned from Bethlehem and Jim and Tammy Faye were jumping up and down as usual. And they were interviewing this man who just come back from the Holy Land. And he told Jim and Tammy Faye, ''Now I liked Bethlehem, don't get me wrong, but it wouldn't hold a candle to this place, Jim. This is Christmas.''
And down beside that we place John first words: ''The word became flesh full of glace and truth and we beheld his glory." Not all beheld that glory. He came unto His own and His own received him not. Most of the world, like that innkeeper, did not have a clue. Truthfully, tell me the truth, would he possibly come down your street and stop at your house? Nah. Too ordinary. Nothing special about us. Not a Bible on the coffee table. And you should see the mess we left the house in to come to church. Jesus wouldn't come there. Or we hope not, not our house.
But John says: God is in the details. Your details. Mine. Our house and my house. And maybe that's what 2011 is all about. God is calling us to behold the glory. John says: we beheld the glory. Not the eyewitnesses. Not the Shepherds, not the Wise Men, not even Mary and Joseph. No. We. The Church, at least some in the early church, would write Brookwood--where we are and in what we face-we can see the glory-the glory of God. This God is not remote or far away. He is embedded in the details of your life and mine.
When I was Pastor in Kentucky there hung on the back wall of the little sanctuary we had, a very fine painting. lf you squinted your eyes and looked closely, you'd see more than a waterfall, green grass, tall trees. lf you looked closely you could see a figure. His arms were outstretched and he was hanging on a cross.
I asked about the artist. Oh, someone explained. The man that painted that picture went to school here. Good artist. Got married. They had a lot of trouble. Had a hard time with faith, just found it real hard to believe. Didn't come to church much. They had a bad experience somewhere along the way. Well, while they were there, their little baby got sick and died.
Jane Kenyon writes about this kind of grief in her poem, ''A Sandy Ho1e.''
The infant's coffin no bigger than flightbag
The young father steps backward from the sandy hole,
eyes wide and dry, his hand over his mouth.
No one dares to come near him, even to touch his sleeve.2
But in that church in Kentucky the real church did come near. They surrounded them. They brought casseroles. They cried and prayed. They lifted this family up week after hard week. And somehow the couple made it through that terrible time. And when they graduated and started to leave they left a gift for Faith Baptist Church. It was a painting that the man had done. It was a landscape. There was some darkness in the picture. A waterfall and green grass. And if you squinted and look closely there at the center of it all--buried among the details was the man on a cross. Even in the hardness of their days they had discovered what John had said years before. ''The word becomes flesh, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory. ''
As so as we slowly make your way into this brand New Year let us keep our eyes wide open. Who knows? Even in the details of our lives God may be there and if we find any glory at all this year we will find it in the most unexpected of places.
1. Fred B. Craddock, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982 p. 13