Off-Road in Bethlehem

Five years ago I was in Bethlehem. Five years isn’t that long, but it’s odd how the memory works. Or doesn’t work! I remember touring the church they say is built over where Jesus was born. I remember the Lutheran Centre where we heard speakers and bought some crosses and shared worship. But from the actual streets of Bethlehem I remember little.


My strongest recollections are NOT of the official streets, the paths we should have taken. My strongest memories of Bethlehem are of the very few times – two, I think – of going off-road. Leaving the group. Abandoning the security of our guide and just exploring.

There was one main street that led from a drop-off point downhill to the Church of the Nativity. We had walked up and down that street a couple of times and frankly, to me, it got kind of touristy and boring. There were so many other streets to explore. So I asked my friend DL, whom I knew would have the same urge, if she’d like to try the side-street. Off we went.

It looked like it should run parallel, but you know the old saying about looks. Soon there was a left turn, and a right turn, and then a whole warren of little alleyways.

As we walked we were both getting quieter and quieter. I didn’t want to say anything to DL, and I suspect she didn’t want to say anything to me. It had only taken maybe ten minutes.

We were lost.           

A voice says: Cry out! And I said: “What shall I cry?” Did you hear that from Isaiah this morning? Get thee to the desert, it says, to the wilderness. And there prepare the way of the Lord, a highway for our God.

For whatever complicated historical and economic reasons, we live in a society that, more and more, wants to train the unpredictability out of us. We live in a world of systems. Computer systems. Communication and transportation and economic systems. Everything is a system. We’re told to behave in a certain way. Not only do most of us more or less successfully behave like that, but we get VERY upset with those who don’t. Or can’t. We put them into institutions. If John the Baptist were around now he’d be in a hospital or on the street. Or on meds. The only times we allow ourselves to see our wildernesses, our wild places, is up on the movie screens, where we can safely walk out of the theatre and tell each other that that’s nice, but it’s not real life.

We’ve become slaves in so many ways, and the worst kind of slaves – slaves that actually WANT to be where we are. We’re like the ancient Hebrews who told Moses: “why did you bring us out here into the desert where there’s no food? Weren’t we happier to be well-fed – even if we were in bondage”?

Today’s lessons, each in their own way, are about EXODUS, which is a word that doesn’t mean all that much in our world right now. But liberation, which is what Exodus leads to, DOES mean something. Or it should.

Advent is about preparing for liberation. And however much we decorate the church or our houses, Advent is ultimately about how well we prepare ourselves and our communities for justice, and truth, for incarnation and for the risk of being out there, maybe a bit lost, preparing for a new way in the world.

This last week some of us at the university got free passes for the movie “The Exodus”. It was a big Hollywood production, with absolutely fantastic costumes and sets and 3-D effects. It must have cost millions, maybe tens of millions, to make.

But the point, for all that, was simple: there is captivity, and there is freedom. And sometimes we make ourselves captives even while we think that we’re free. Where does liberation await us? Almost always, the movie seemed to imply, it’s off the beaten track. In the “wilderness”, wherever that is.

Our churches are failing. Not all of them, but many. We’re closing buildings, shutting down congregations, bemoaning the fact that there is so much grey hair in the pews.

In one sense, that’s sad. But I wonder if what’s really happening is that we Jesus-believers are being forced out to where it all began: in the wilderness. It’s in the wilderness of NOT knowing what a building should be, in the wilderness of NOT knowing who should be part of our group, and in the wilderness of NOT having big budgets and buildings and programs that we can do what the prophet says we should be doing:

Cry out, says God. Cry out that the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice – and how are we supposed to lift it up? – Lift it up, without fear, and say“Behold! The advent of your God!”

It starts, I believe, with allowing ourselves, every day, in our homes and work, to be less safe, and more spontaneous. It means forgiving ourselves, and others, for failure, because only by doing that can we learn to try again to succeed. It means relying on others, for only in community can a person survive the wilderness.

And it also starts by seeking justice, however imperfectly, and by keeping our eyes open. By so doing, says the prophet, we will be preparing our hearts for the Christ child. And if we don’t spend some time in the wilderness, it won’t matter how many lights we’ve hung or how Christmassy our houses look, we won’t be ready for Jesus no matter what.

If it sounds unsafe, it should. Can you imagine a crazier-looking character than John the Baptist? But every year he is our model of preparing a way for the Lord.

Lift up your voice with strength O Judah. Do not fear. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. And all people will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

At one point in our wilderness way to the Church of the Nativity, we stumbled into an open square. It was a market. Spices, meats, nuts, dates….everything seemed to be there. There were lots and lots of people. But as far as I could see, not a single other face that looked like mine. They were all locals.

We went left. No exit. Right. Again, no exit. Down a stair…dead end.

Eventually, we found our way to another street, and from there to another street, and emerged, eventually, via a series of lanes and stairs, back onto the main thoroughfare that we had left behind.

Was it a bit frightening? Yes, at least to me. Was it interesting? A thousand times more than the other way.

Prepare the way of the Lord. How? By being less afraid, by being more human, by being willing to act a bit crazy and look a bit lost. By loving, seeking justice, and by embracing the life we’ve been given and not worrying quite so much about the opinions of others. Maybe it was a risk going off-road on the way to the Nativity. But five years later, that’s the only street I remember. May we each, in our own ways, hear God’s call to go “off road”, and learn what it is to be out there, preparing a way through our homes and through our lives.


Christmas Bloody Christmas



From this week’s news:  GENEVA (AP) — A panel of U.N. investigators said Thursday it believes the Syrian government is committing a crime against humanity by making people systematically vanish…


In a report based on interviews with survivors and family members of victims, the panel said the war tactic being used by President Bashar Assad’s government amounts to a crime against humanity. It is a policy of spreading terror and mental anguish….Most of the victims have been young men.


And from Matthew’s Christmas reading: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated. And he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under….Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, because they are no more”.


Anyone who says that the Bible is not political has simply not read it. What could be more political AND more topical, these days, than mass murder in the Middle East, carried out by a desperate tyrant? Bashar Assad, meet Herod. Herod, meet Bashar Assad. There aren’t that many kilometers between Damascus and Jerusalem. There are more than enough similarities. Except that Herod was a good deal more clever than Assad. And built more monuments. And was, if anything, even more psychotically paranoid. Herod killed most of his own children.


Bible stories, when we take off the tinsel-covered glasses, are every bit as bad as today’s news. They are often – extremely often – accounts not of peace and harmony and carols sung by choirs, but of bloodshed, hate, suffering, disappointment and cruelty. There’s more blood in the Bible than in most books. And oddly enough, it seems that the birth of Jesus, before it brought life to the world, first brought death.


We especially forget that. The Prince of Peace, according to Matthew, came into the world with angels and nice pronouncements, but his arrival immediately precipitated mass murder. Jesus may have been what Hollywood would call a “good guy”. But if Matthew is to be believed, then there were a lot of parents in Bethlehem who would have had good reason to hate the Son of Promise.  This is no “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace”. The Incarnation – the Good News – caused huge collateral damage. Maybe, part of the point is that it still could.


In other words, the  slaughter of the innocents is – or SHOULD be – a sobering reminder of the cost of truth and justice. There’s a hard learning here, especially for us who are comfortable: the RIGHT thing to do may not often be the popular thing to do. And it will almost certainly not be the easy thing to do. I’m one of those people who likes to please others, and for the most part, to stay safe. So it amazes and inspires me to read about people like me, like us, people maybe that you and I even know, from here on the South Shore/Montreal who go to work in the tough zones of the world, like the Syrian camps, or the Pakistan schools, or the clinics in Sudan. The kind of person who was killed just yesterday, a volunteer giving vaccinations near Karachi. Or closer to home, those people who stand up to the oil companies on the First Nations reserves or stand with them.


Yesterday I heard a rebroadcast of the interview with the young Pakistani girl, Malala Yousafzai. Her battle is not my battle. But I was amazed when the interviewer from the CBC said to her: what did you do when a Talib came to your school, or stopped you on the street? And she said, with such simple bravery: “I said to him, what I am doing is for you, too, and for your daughters and sons. I am not less than you because I am female. Education is a right.”


She spoke as if the man holding a gun would actually listen to her words and think about them. But we live in a world of Herods, where he wouldn’t, and probably won’t. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he wouldn’t at first, but maybe, just maybe, enough Malalas might convince him.


And that’s where we come in. I’m not sure why this story about the babies being slaughtered because of Jesus is actually in the Bible. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable. But I think that part of what it does, besides getting Jesus to Egypt, is to show how troublesome, dangerous and divisive the message of Jesus really is. And how Jesus’ birth requires COURAGE from us. Christmas is not just the stuff of greeting cards and FaceBook posts. The message of real love and justice at Christmas is intended to change hearts and minds. It’s intended to make us, at least sometimes, stand up in the middle of a conversation and say: “I don’t agree”. And that is a path that might, at some point, leave us standing with the First Nations at a demonstration, or in Palestine with the Lutherans there, or welcoming refugees, or demonstrating against a corporation or government that just doesn’t care.


This last week I watched the movie: “The Hunger Games”. It’s a story about power and the abuse of power. It’s about love and murder. It’s a very good movie, even though it’s Hollywood and not everything about the plot makes sense. But it shows the value of courage, and sacrifice, and how important it can be to stand up to power for the sake of love.


So: is the Bible political? And was Jesus political? Of course. Herod, who was a consummate politician, knew that Jesus’ birth was not ONLY religious, as if one’s beliefs could really be isolated from everything else. On the other hand, is our message ONLY political? No. Neither that. There’s lots of love and grace and salvation and justification and personal development in there too. But one side of our faith doesn’t take away from the other. How do we grow in holiness? By standing up for others. How do we find the peace that passes understanding? By looking where there is no peace. How do we greet the Messiah? By finding Christ in the face of those who are poorest and most oppressed.


This week, as we clean up after the celebration of the baby who lives, may we reflect on Matthew’s story of the babies who died. May we find in the holy birth of Jesus, the Messiah, a decision point and reason for our own faith. And may the story of the refugee who was the child of God inspire us to look in all such faces, on the roads we travel this year and those we may be called to travel, for the Christ yet to be born in and with us,