Into And Out Of The Wilderness

There are very few true wildernesses left in the world. At least not within easy reach of us here in Appomattox County.
Unless you count the one we hold in the palm of our hand. My smartphone makes the world around me seem more and more of a wilderness every day. I am bombarded by words, images and sounds that make me feel surrounded by madness.
Existence can feel like one huge Tower of Babble and the babbling is filled with dissonance, self-righteousness, division and hate. Love is hardly ever tweeted.
The world can make us feel like the Canada geese I saw early this morning, flying overhead in a perfect V only to become suddenly discombobulated and muddled, as if they no longer knew how to fly at all.
I’ve felt like that. We all have.
That’s why God gave us these words and the promise they make, the promise that God will keep:
“…I will make a way in the wilderness…”
The wildernesses most of us face in our lifetime are those occasions that make us feel lost and alone. Whether it’s the loss of a job, an illness, the death of a loved one…or a difficult memory, life is full of wilderness moments that turn our lives into a tangled maze.
Such occasions create wilderness feelings inside us and that is where we often get lost. Thankfully, God is there to help us through such times. “…I will make a way in the wilderness,” God promises me, and promises you through the prophet Isaiah.
As important as those eight words are, the words that come before them hold the key to following God out of the wilderness in which we are lost and wandering. Especially if there is something deep in our lives that we find troubling, something perhaps even years ago that still creates wilderness moments in our otherwise orderly and civilized lives.
“Do not remember the former things,” God urges us, “or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Those are words that provide us with an internal and eternal map through our wilderness moments and through the violently crazy world around us. They are words that blaze a trail to what is, in truth, a “promised land” that God offers us all, one that abounds with love and grace.
Don’t dwell on hurts and pains and sorrows, God is telling us. Don’t believe the babble all around you. God can speak through the static of a twittering world.
So, have faith in that new thing that God is about to do.
Like the leaves that will soon be budding on the trees and the daffodils dotting the landscape, what God promises will spring up. It can spring up now in the deepest part of ourselves that the wilderness cannot reach, the place that only God can find.
God is marking the trail through our trials and tribulations. Journey with faith in that guiding love and grace. It has the power to actually transform the wilderness, itself, giving us rivers in the desert and love so magnificent and huge that no tweet, text or email could ever contain or defeat it.
Then, like those Canada geese, we can gather ourselves and keep on flying where the Holy Spirit guides our wings.
So, take that smartphone and Google “Amazing Grace.”
Or, instead:
Be still. Be quiet. And listen to the melody God is singing inside you.

The Road To Healing

Ken Woodley here. I don’t know if this qualifies as a shameless plug—I know that I do it without shame—but I want to share with everyone that my book, The Road to Healing, will be published later this month and can be pre-ordered right this very moment through your favorite local or online retailer. It is available online through and (Barnes and Noble). The book is being published by NewSouth Books of Montgomery, Alabama (and is no vanity press volume).
The book’s subtitle is: A Civil Rights Reparations Story in Prince Edward County, Virginia.
I believe those who have enjoyed sharing this journey together will also enjoy the book. The Holy Spirit, God and Jesus are deep within it because The Road to Healing was, and is, a journey of faith.
The story is true and provides inspiration and hope for a divided nation and world. The centerpiece of the book is my first-person account of the tumultuously twisting and turning effort to create what the late Julian Bond told me would become the first Civil Rights-era reparations in U.S. history.
Those who read, and recall, my writings in January of 2018 in Forward Day By Day will remember that about a half a dozen of them were about the “massive resistance” in Prince Edward County, Virginia to the Brown v. Board decision of 1954. The County shut down its entire public school system for five years—1959 to 1964—rather than integrate schools. More than 2,000 African American children were left without a formal education. The wound was deep.
The book tells the story of our efforts to bring healing to that unprecedented wound of race. In telling Prince Edward County’s story from 1951, and the birth of the Civil Rights movement there, to the present day, the arc of the narrative is one of ongoing healing and reconciliation.
The story marks a trail blaze for other communities, the nation and world to follow.
U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine—both former Virginia governors, with Kaine also once a candidate for vice-president—wrote the Foreword and Afterword, respectively.
God’s love, peace and grace to you,
Ken Woodley

Faith, The Final Frontier

It’s still the final frontier.
Our continuing mission is to keep on seeking out new worlds of faith.
To boldly go where no faith has gone before.
And on this week’s episode we are going to do precisely that. We are going to push the faith envelope and mail ourselves to another dimension.
In fact, don’t cue the theme music for Faith Trek. We are going to go so boldly that this is more appropriately Faith Trek: The Next Generation.
Previously, on Faith Trek, remember, Jesus encountered the Roman centurion, whose faith was so strong that he told Jesus to simply speak the word and his servant would be healed.
Jesus was so amazed, saying he had never encountered such strong faith before. “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would,” Jesus told the man and the Roman centurion’s servant was healed at that very moment.
If that healing seems miraculous to us, just look at what the Gospel of Luke has for us this week.
Soon after healing the centurion’s servant, Jesus is on his way to a city called Nain. As he approaches the gates of the city a man who had died is being carried out on a bier. Jesus sees the dead man’s widowed mother, and knows what kind of life a widowed woman will have in that day and age, alone in the world after her only son has died.
The photon torpedoes of sorrow and surrender must have surrounded her mightily. Life’s phasers were not simply set on “stun.” A man was dead. What in the world could Jesus do about that? The crowd following him was surely asking themselves that question. If we were walking with Jesus on that road, we’d be asking ourselves the same thing. Nobody would have been expecting the dead to rise.
So what happens? Exactly what we least expect. Jesus has compassion for the grieving woman, Luke tells us, “and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’” Then Jesus touches the bier and says, “‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’”
The young man does just that and begins to speak.
Totally unbelievable.
Yet, so utterly believable.
And something, I suspect, that each of us has encountered in our own lives, if we think about it.
Something about our life was dead and through our faith in God’s grace and love, through our faith in Jesus’ witness to that grace and love, and his promise of the Holy Spirit, we have risen from that “dead” self into a new life.
We have left that “bier” behind.
To echo the 46th Psalm, something about our life was keeping us prisoner—some hurt, behavior, circumstance. Whatever.
And the Lord set us free.
Something about our life made us feel blind.
And the Lord opened our eyes.
Something about our life was bowing us down.
And the Lord lifted us up.
Something about our life made us feel as alone in this world as an orphan or a widow.
And the Lord surrounded us with his healing presence.
Yes, I suspect we have all, at some point in our lives, felt Jesus touch our “bier”—touch whatever it was that was keeping us prisoner, blinding us, bowing us down or making us feel isolated from God’s love—and say to us, “Rise!”
I know that I have.
There are all sorts of “biers” in the world and Jesus can, and will, touch every one of them.
If there is something in your life that makes you feel imprisoned, blind or bowed down, why wait another day to feel the voice of Jesus telling you to rise?
Let these words soak into your soul: “You Are Loved—Always.” That is the Holy Spirit of God speaking and Jesus, our Shepherd, has led us to those words. Take those words with you and, some time later today, find a quiet moment. Just you and the Lord. Let Jesus touch your “bier” with the truth of those words.
Then feel your soul rise at the speed of Light.

And Our Walls Come Tumbling Down

One of the most famous scenes from the Old Testament is Joshua leading the Israelites in the battle for Jericho, 1,400 years before Jesus was born.

Listening to what God told him, and having faith in what he heard, Joshua fought a very unconventional battle.

He marched around the city of Jericho once a day for six days, but not to use warring weapons.

He circled around the city with what was really a marching band, priests with ram horn trumpets, or “shofars”, one of the earliest wind instruments in human history.

Instead of piercing weapons and stabbing swords, the breath of the priests, like a spirit wind from on high, was transformed through the curving ram horns into echoing notes that proclaimed their faith in God.

In ancient Israel the “shofar” symbolized our own human windpipes and had deep spiritual significance, the sound of the “shofar” summoning, the Israelites believed, God’s highest mercy.

On the seventh day, God told Jericho that his marching band should be joined by the people adding their own voices to the sounding trumpets.

Joshua, as we know, did just what God told him to do and the walls of Jericho came tumbling down without a single shot being fired.

Shouts to the Lord, not shots, carried the day.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples at the rebuilt city of Jericho and Jesus also causes walls to crumble just outside the city’s gates. But walls that are not made of stone, though these walls have a stoning effect.

Mark tells us that as Jesus and his disciples, along with a large crowd, were leaving Jericho, a blind beggar was sitting by the roadside. When the blind man, surrounded by walls of darkness, heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth he began to shout out, not unlike Joshua and his people did 1,400 years earlier.

The blind man pleaded with Jesus to have mercy on him.

As would sometimes happen, those with Jesus—all of whom had their sight—rebuked the blind man for bothering Jesus. They sternly ordered the blind man to be quiet.

But the blind man would not be silenced, crying out more loudly:

“Son, of David, have mercy on me.”

Mark’s next sentence is absolutely wonderful—Jesus stood still.

Jesus stood still.

Stopped right in his tracks.

And then, teaching those with him a lesson, Jesus tells his disciples to call the blind man over to him. He doesn’t call the blind man, himself, but instructs those who were rebuking the blind man to change the tune of their own voices and call the man to Christ.

They do so, and seem to have quickly gotten the point.

The disciples do not offer a grudging invitation but tell the blind man to “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”

Though surrounded by the walls of darkness, the blind man reacts without any sign of caution, paying the dark walls little respect. He tosses off his cloak and, Mark tells us, “sprang up and came to Jesus.”

The blind man ran right through the walls of darkness surrounding him. He doesn’t stumble. He doesn’t walk hesitantly, groping to find his way through the walls of darkness.

He becomes his own new season.

He springs up, like a sudden bloom in winter, and just like that he is standing right in front of Jesus, who asks the most loving and compassionate question—What do you want me to do for you?

What do you want me to do for you?

There are no limits. No preconceptions. Everything’s on the table. All things are possible.

My teacher, the blind man responds, let me see again.

What happened next is simple:
And the walls came tumbling down.

Go, Jesus tells the man who is blind no more, your faith has made you well.

Immediately, Mark tells, us, the man regained his sight and followed Jesus on his way.

Just as are doing together, Jerichos all around.

All of us experience our own walls in this world.
Each of us know what effect those walls can have on our lives, trying to keep us from feeling the full measure of God’s love and grace.

Walls of doubt.
Walls of fear.
Walls of illness.
Of anxiety.

Of pain, rejection, sadness, or longing for love.

Some of us have walls that were begun, the first stones put in place, when we were young.

Walls that stoned their way higher and higher as we grew older.

Perhaps some of us are feeling a few stones of worry gathering together inside us, wondering about the future of St. Anne’s as we, once again, find ourselves looking for a new minister around a bend in the road we cannot see or be certain of.

Everyone’s wall is unique, individual, like a fingerprint.

Not every wall is the same height, or thickness, or strength.

But just about every one of us knows the way walls feel in our lives.

We can also sometimes be our own worst enemies, allowing doubts and fears to act on us much like the companions of
Jesus acted toward the blind man, shouting him down, trying to silence his voice of faith in the Lord.

Yes, each of us knows what the blind man felt like.

But we all know this too:

Jesus is standing still.
Jesus is not leaving us behind.

Jesus is in the darkness of our anxieties and pain with us.
Jesus is standing with us in the midst of everything we are facing, as individuals and as a congregation.

And Jesus is asking us the very same question he asked the blind man.

In a quiet voice deep within our souls, Jesus is asking you and me, today, right now, What do you want me to do for you?

What do you want me to do for you?

A question so very full of love because Jesus asks the question knowing that he will take our answer into his heart and respond to us with unconditional love and compassion, in ways that are sometimes not so obvious at first but become prayerfully and powerfully revealed, as clear as the towering oak tree outside the window above our altar, when we lift our hearts to feel the answer.

Like the blind man, and like the author of the 34th Psalm we just heard today, we can call out to the Lord in our affliction and feel the angel of the Lord encompassing us, becoming our north, south, our east and west, being with us in every direction of our journey.

The angel of the Lord encompassing us in every literal and figurative meaning of the word, like the melody of the ancient “shofar” trumpet, pulling apart the walls that the world tries to build around us.

We may not have our own ram horn “shofars” to bring down those walls but we have our own windpipes to breathe life into words of prayer that will also summon God’s highest mercy through the presence of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

We can also be wind instruments of the Lord, sounding the refrain of God’s love and grace voiced through us, shining from us into a world where wounded people sit in dark silence waiting, some hearing voices from the surrounding world telling them to be quiet, just as the disciples first told the blind man.

Those voices are not our voices.

Together we are a marching band strong enough to take on the Jericho walls in the world we face.

If the walls do come, the walls will surely tumble.

The psalmist uses an extraordinarily rich word in the eighth verse of the 34th Psalm—Taste.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Taste is not a sense we are often invited to enjoy in a religious or spiritual context.

Or is it?

In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to taste the bread and wine of communion with Jesus Christ.

And our souls can take that momentary flavor of Christ’s love for us and partake more deeply, tasting the moment when we hear most clearly the voice of Jesus ask,

What do you want me to do for you?

Tasting the moment when we answer Jesus, our souls springing up like a winter rose, tasting the place where our faith and Christ’s love meet in a Holy Communion.

There is no wall that anyone can build around us, or that we can build around ourselves, strong enough to keep out Christ’s simple question to each of one of us, and to the collective family of Saint Anne’s:

What do you want me to do for you?

Nine words that add up to everything.

Nine words waiting only for us to answer.

Take heart.
Spring up.
He is calling every one of us.

Through The Midst Of Them

“In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ …. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.’ … When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”

—The Gospel of Luke

How truly awful. The beginning of Jesus’s public ministry foreshadows its ending. There are those who want to kill him right at the outset.
The people of his own hometown are intent on hurling him off the cliff to his death.
The question, “What child is this?” has been replaced by, “What man is this and who does he think he is?”
But unlike the question posed at the birth of Jesus, this one isn’t filled with reverent, holy wonder. The heralding angels are a distant memory and there is not a wise man in the crowd, much less three such men of wisdom.
In an instant, the synagogue’s reverent congregation becomes a mindless mob with nothing but murder on its mind.
That’s a definite attention-grabber, but what is most gripping here is the mysterious end to this passage from the Gospel of Luke:
“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
How is that possible? They just spent a considerable amount of time with Jesus in the synagogue so they know exactly what he looks like. Plus, most of them already knew him as Joseph’s son. He grew up there.
How then could Jesus—their sole focus—simply pass through the midst of them and go off safely on his way? Surely, at least one person would have noticed and shouted out, “Hey, he’s getting away!!”
There are several takeaways for us from this story. Here’s one: sometimes we just don’t recognize a Jesus Moment when it’s standing right there in front of us. We let it pass through our midst.
The presence of Jesus is trying to be manifested to us, for example, through the loving kindness of others—and such Jesus moments can be so very real—but we just don’t see it.
Jesus tries to reach out to us but we’re way too busy or depressed or hurt or angry.
Likewise, there are also times when we have the opportunity to seize a fleeting instant in the day and become the presence of Jesus for someone else.
Sadly, sometimes that moment—and the presence of Jesus it promises—also passes through our midst and goes off on its way.
We have an idea about reaching out to someone who needs us, but we become distracted, or think too much about it and begin to doubt our ability to perform even a small “miracle” of loving friendship to someone we know. Or perhaps a passing stranger.
The opportunity was right there. Now it’s gone. And we are left standing alone at the side of a cliff, wondering how we got there and where Jesus went.
But be aware that there are other times, too, when Jesus manifests his presence directly and often when you most need it—when people or events push you toward a cliff. Be ready to recognize Jesus and believe because, with that faith, he will pass you through the midst of them and take you on your way.


“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

—The Gospel of Luke

Living with the Holy Spirit is not a spectator sport.
We don’t change the world from a comfy recliner.
Who, me? Change the world?
Yes! And you and you and you!
The Spirit of the Lord is upon all of us who open ourselves to what the Celtic Christians aptly called the “Wild Goose.” In our chosen moments we will be lifted by its wings to do the work that God has given us to do—even if we may not fully know exactly where we’re going or how we’re going to get there.
No, we’re not likely to become prophets in the vein of Samuel, Isaiah or Jeremiah. There won’t be any books in the Bible bearing our name.
But we don’t have to become legendary.
We just need to become real.
Our prophetic mission will make itself clear when that moment, or those moments, are manifested to us by God.
Whether it’s a clothing exchange, making food available to those in need, putting our arm around someone when they need that most or sending someone a healing note of companionship.
The small moments need filling just as desperately as the great big ones do. And there’s nothing small about filling any moment with love.
We are also called to speak out against injustice by writing, emailing or telephoning our elected representatives and fighting for a cause: local, regional, statewide, national or global in scope.
Or standing up in person to speak face to face with those elected officials.
Speaking truth to power isn’t a First Amendment right reserved for a chosen few.
And to move mountains you’ve got to start with the pebbles and the stones.
That’s the only way the mountains know you mean business.
When we give the Holy Spirit of God the use of our tongues, there’s no telling what we might say and who might be listening.
And how they might respond.
Even if we’re only speaking to ourselves.
Sometimes—and sometimes especially—when we’re speaking truth only to ourselves because we all need reminding that we are no longer held captive away from God’s love and grace.
That our sight of God’s love and grace has been recovered.
That the our oppression has ended and we are free to wrap our arms and hearts and minds and souls around that love and grace.
That the Lord’s favor has been announced to us.
To all of us.
Without exception.
Jesus said so.
And that Good News is worth believing, and sharing.
Even if nobody’s listening but you.

Vintage Lives

“Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now,’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.”

—The Gospel of John

When we are born into this world all of us are like clear, small streams sprung from the earth.
A baby boy or girl is crystal clear.
Like liquid spirit.
From that moment on, however, anything can happen to the stream of our lives, and much of it is beyond our control.
As with nature’s watery streams, our own lives pick up bits and pieces of the world.
Our streams flow where gravity takes them.
And gravity always takes us, as it does all streams, toward tributaries.
We encounter the streams of others.
People we meet in life and with whom we form relationships. People whose clear, crystal streams strengthen our own.
And we grow toward the strong and good river that we can become.
But our streams can also become polluted by others. Contaminated.
There are people who are more like a hit-and-run accident in our lives. They run into us, dent us, scratch us. Perhaps even break us in some way. And then they drive off, drive away, and we are left only with the scars.
Good, bad, ugly and beautiful streams join our own, just as we become tributaries to the streams—to the lives—of others.
The passing of years has an undoubted and cumulative effect. No matter how much we to want to believe that the stream of our life is as crystal clear and pure as it was when we first flowed into the world, the truth is that life has muddied us in some way.
Muddied us all.
There is no way to avoid it.
Some of our pollution is our own fault.
Some is the fault of others.
But no matter how muddy and polluted life makes us, that mud and that pollution is not the end of the story.
If we keep on flowing.
If we don’t allow the world’s pollution to dam our stream and keep it from the sea of God’s love.
If we keep flowing around the next bend of our life’s river and believe that we will find Jesus waiting for us.
Where Jesus will turn our water into wine.
Where Jesus will draw out the water of our lives and, with mercy and love, offer us a taste of a pure vintage that we never knew was inside us.
Where Jesus will show us how the dents and scratches and scars of our lives—even where we are broken—can fit miraculously into the dents, scratches, scars and broken places in the lives of others.
And how that miracle can heal us all.
Jesus turning the water of our lives into wine, a communion of God’s love and grace for each of us.
Saving the best for last.

Beyond The Dreams Of Avarice

“So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God”

—The Gospel of Luke

Please forgive me if you find me swanking about the place as if I owned it. But, you see, I had forgotten that I’m a millionaire. Just rolling in the stuff. Got in sackfuls. The lucre’s just busting out everywhere.
I feel, in fact, as if I am writing this week’s meditation for Forbes Magazine. You know, from one millionaire to another.
Because I mean, dash it all, that what with one thing or another, some of you may have forgotten that you are millionaires, too.
What, not true? Not millionaires?
Au contraire.
The take-away from Luke’s reporting of the words of Jesus requires a Brink’s truck and a good vault at a bank.
Or, no, it doesn’t.
Our capital gains have nothing to do with the stock market. Neither Dow nor Jones—what crazy, amped up, knee-jerking reactionaries those two Wall Streeters are, eh?—can diminish our wealth one little bit.
We fear neither bull nor bear.
Jesus said so.
Someone asks Jesus to tell his (the speaker’s) brother to divide up the family inheritance rather than hogging it all. “Take care,” Jesus responds, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’
Then Jesus tells the parable of the rich man whose farm lands gave him so many bumper crops that the granary should have been made by Ford or Chevy. So large a harvest does he get that his existing barns can’t hold it all and he decides to tear them down and build bigger and better ones for his grains and goods.
“And I will say to my soul,” the farmer continues, “‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink and be merry.’”
But, God doesn’t endorse this fiscal policy and calls the man a fool because “this very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Pertinent question. God’s usually are.
“So it is,” Jesus goes on to explain, “for those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”
Rich toward God.
What a phrase, and one that can be interpreted several ways. It can mean, of course, that we should share our time, talents and treasure to bring the kingdom of heaven closer for people in need.
But, as I read the lesson, it struck me more forcefully that acting rich toward God means acting like, well, we are rich.
Not because of our own fiscal accumulation but because the wealth that matters to our soul is the love and grace freely given to us by God. And God is not stingy with that love and grace.
We got it by the Brink’s truckload.
But “being rich toward God” means acting like we know it, opening our hearts and souls to the deposits of love and grace that God has for us.
“Toward God” means pointing ourselves, inclining our heart, mind and soul in that direction, and moving toward that love and grace. It means acting like the millionaires we truly are.
It also means being generous millionaire philanthropists and sharing that love and grace with others to bring them closer to the kingdom of heaven.
Sharing it like we’re just rolling in the stuff. Got in sackfuls. The lucre’s just busting out everywhere, falling from the pockets of our soul.
Because we do, and it is.

What Other Child Is This?

One of our most beloved Christmas carols asks a seemingly simple, straight-foward question:

“What child is this?”

Well, it’s Jesus, of course.

But the deepest answer to this straightforward question hasn’t proven to be either simple or straightforward for many people down through the ages.

Indeed, based on the likelihood that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry, it even took him some considerable time to fully grasp what child he had been, laid to rest in Mary’s lap that night in the manger so long ago.

And so our own answer to that question may take years to fully unfold.

While we have our liturgy and creeds to go along with our bible and Book of Common Prayer, meaningfully answering that question—what child is this?—will vary in subtle ways from person to person.

My experience will be different than yours, though they are, at their very foundation, the same.

Our lives are journeys over ever-changing terrain and where we are at a given moment provides a different angle to our relationship with Christ—our relationship with that child—and our feel for God’s love and grace.

Clearly, answering the question, What child is this? isn’t a trite multiple choice option that provides the opportunity of a lucky guess. Nor is it a fill-in-the blank possibility.

The answer to this question is an essay, and we write the essay, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, with our lives.

Some of the deepest parts of the answer can be found in the darkest days of December.

And so, here we are. Advent is drawing to a close. Our wait is nearly over. Christmas Eve rises with the sun tomorrow. And with the tidal wave of light at dawn on Christmas Day will come a son even brighter than the one in the sky.

A great light in the darkness. A light that will turn the darkness, itself, into light.

The darkness around all of us.

The darkness inside all of us.

If we let him.

True light from true light. Begotten, not made.

To drive out the darkness as if he were a super-hero warrior out of myth and legend.

But he’s not that sort of savior.

He’ll wear no armor. He’ll grip no swords. He’ll throw no spears.

He’ll be armed only with light.

Armed only with light and love. Because that is the only way that he—the only way that we—can win.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, taking his cue from this “love your enemy” carpenter’s son: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

That is why darkness flees at the approach of his footsteps.

What child is this?

Only a child, on the face of it. Just a baby boy. That’s apparently all, at that moment in the manger, but that will clearly be enough. Because that moment is going to grow to unbelievably meaningful dimensions.

That one moment will become eternity.

The son of Mary and Joseph. The son of man. The son of God.

And we—those that our hero has come to save—are, ironically, his only kryptonite.

Because Jesus is so vulnerable to our own doubts about the light that he will bring into the world, into our lives, into us, and through us, if we let him.

In the brightness of that light we might be blinded to the truth that Jesus is not alone in the manger straw, not alone in his mother’s lap.

And that is a truth that he tried so desperately to teach us.

There is another child waiting with him for our arrival, waiting to be fully born, with Jesus, into this world.

But who? What other child is this?

If we return to the manger with fresh eyes and, more importantly, a fresh heart, the answer that Jesus gave as he preached the good news about the Kingdom of Heaven is clear and bright, like the Star of Bethlehem, itself.

To answer the question about the other child, begin by breathing deeply:

You may smell the straw and the strong earthy presence of sheep and cattle.

You may hear the gentle voice of Mary whispering. The gentle voice of Mary whispering in your ear.

“Listen to what my son is telling you,” she urges us.

“Feel the truth of his words inside you,” she says, as the livestock crowded around the manger give us warmth.

“My son has called you friends. My son has called you his brothers and sisters. He taught you to pray ‘Our father’ for a reason,” Mary tells us, as we look up into her eyes and want to believe that what she says is true.

“Know that you are loved truly and deeply by God, and by my son,” Mary tells us.

“You are,” she continues, as Three Wise Men enter, “a child of God.”

“Take good care of that child,” Mary cautions us, as the shepherds exchange glances with one another. “Love that child,” she says. “Raise that child with gentleness of heart and strength of purpose.”

“Give yourselves entirely to that child,” Mary tells us. “Truly become that child.”

“And let that child be the best Christmas present you could ever give my son on his birthday,” she says, and the smell of frankincense is everywhere.

“That present is the only gift he wants. For you to become your child of God self,” we hear her say, as Joseph rests his hand upon her shoulder and nods.

“Please let him unwrap that present some day very soon,” she says and then begins singing us a lullaby. “What child is this who lays to rest in my arms?” she sings, her voice feeling like a warm, soft blanket on a cold night. “Where shepherds watch and angels sing..”

And then she falls silent, just watching, just looking deeply into our eyes.

What other child is this?

Mary’s right. This other child is you and me—our child of God selves. And, without Jesus, we never would have known.

So, yes, let’s make Jesus’ birthday wish come true, and become—as truly as we can—our child of God selves.

Fully human but able to love our neighbors as ourselves,

able to turn the other cheek,

walk the extra mile as blessed peacemakers and so become, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, sons and daughters of God,

hungering and thirsting for justice,

loving our enemies and so disarming them,

turning sword words into plowshares,

letting Jesus turn the water of our lives into wine so that others might find communion in God’s love for them,

giving ourselves as loaves and fishes.

But, no, it won’t always be easy.

The greatest challenge is refusing to allow the darkness to make us doubt that we are a child of God. The darkness has many voices. All of them are human. And sometimes that voice is our own.

They talk to us in the present and from our past. They are persistence voices that diminish and can damage our child of God selves.

Sometimes those voices from our past are worst of all and can make our child of God self retreat so deeply inside us that we can no longer feel or find it. We need to shake their dust from our feet. Past and present. All of it.

Thankfully, the light also has many voices. They, too, are all around us. They nurture. Encourage. Affirm. Guide. And love. Listen to them. Let your light shine.

You might just be surprised by how far it can go.

“My son,” Mary tells us as we turn to finish our Advent journey, “said that you are the light of the world. Please, believe him.”

“If you give Jesus the present that he really wants,” she explains to our wondering hearts, “when he blows out all of his birthday candles the flickering flame of love will remain and the world’s darkness will have retreated just a little further into the distance.”

“You will have opened the gift,” she softly declares, “that he has been trying so hard to give you.”

Our “Texts” For Today

As Jesus and his disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her cell phone and its many apps, its email, texts, downloads, alerts and websites.
As Jesus spoke of God’s love, Martha was distracted by a news headline about more unrest in the world.
When Jesus spoke of God’s grace, Martha responded to the “ting” of a text message, looking away from Jesus to see who had texted her and what they had said. It might be, Martha told herself, an important message.
Jesus was speaking about turning darkness into light as Martha checked her email for any “alerts” from the various news services to which she subscribed. Something bad might have happened in the world, she told herself, and she needed to know about it.
While Jesus was explaining about the kingdom of God being near, Martha answered the musical ringtone of her cell phone. She had decided not to put the phone on “silent” while Jesus was there because she was afraid of missing any phone call that might require prompt attention.
Her sister, Mary, meanwhile, had left her cellphone in her bedroom. Mary wanted to hear everything Jesus had to say. My, what a blessing it is, she had told herself after Jesus had walked through the doorway, to have the Lord in our home.
The texts and emails and apps and alerts can wait, Mary had decided. They are going nowhere. They will be waiting for me later. I do not need to worry about them now, she told herself.
But Jesus will be leaving us, Mary knew, because the Lord was traveling to many villages, and so I want to hear, yes, she told herself, but also feel everything he has to say.
There was a look of tranquil peace on Mary’s face as she simply sat at the Lord’s feet, drinking in every word, every syllable, as if they were sips of the coolest, purest water from the deepest most refreshing well.
Martha was astonished by her sister’s indifference to everything else going on in the world. Doesn’t she care? Martha asked herself. And doesn’t Jesus care, Martha wondered, that Mary is paying no attention to the horrible headlines that were surely being emailed and texted around the world at that very moment?
“Lord,” Martha asked Jesus, “do you not care that my sister has left me to read all of the texts and emails and website headlines about the world’s troubles? Tell her then to help me.”
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
Just as we, you and me, can choose the better part.
We can put the “Martha” part of ourselves away at least once each day and allow the “Mary” we also have inside us to lead us to the still waters and green pastures of communion with our Good Shepherd.
We can—indeed, we desperately need to—find time each day to sit at the Lord’s feet, to create quiet time in the morning or the evening to pray and contemplate, to read what Jesus has to say to us in the New Testament but also through our communion with the Holy Spirit. Find a time that fits you best and sit there at the Lord’s feet. Any time will do.
Because Jesus is there, in all of our homes. He has crossed our threshold and wants nothing more than for us be like Mary, just once a day, and put away our cellphones, with their Pandora’s box of distractions and worries. Put away the turmoil in the world and just sit and listen to the Lord with our hearts and our minds and our souls.
Only by fortifying ourselves with the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, do we stand a chance of doing anything to address even one of the world’s many needs.
When, like Mary, we choose the better part, it will not be taken away from us. And it is then that we have the power to share that “better part” more deeply with the corner of the world in which we find ourselves.