The Slaughter of Innocents Amplifies God’s Incarnation

Prelude: This post comes from my son, Rev. Josh McClendon, Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC, who always amazes me at his depth and strength. Only he could handle the Slaughter of the Innocents and write a first-person monologue to make his old man cry. It made me think of the children I have buried over the years and their parent’s pain. It made me think of my daughter Narcie as Hannah. Listen to his words of a God whose incarnation in Jesus risks our pain from start to finish, and gives us authentic hope.

Here are Josh’s words and for a picture of Joella and other wisdom go to his blog directly at http://joshtmcc.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/blood-stained/:

Even though our culture moves on pretty quickly, the 12 days of Christmas are still here. One usual reading this time of year makes very clear how raw and risky the incarnation was. The passage is sometimes titled, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” and for lots of congregations it is totally avoided. But this is roughly the very next chapter in Jesus’ story and, if not for his sake then for the sake of the “Innocents” themselves and their families, it is worth our attention. Read Matthew 2:13-23 here.

Today we’re going to approach these events from the perspective of those directly affected. I’ll ask you to imagine that we’ve stumbled across the personal journal of one such family. Try to do your best to visualize the following three journal entries as the work of a father in first-century Judea. As a fairly new dad (one of my girls is pictured above), I know this is tough but stick with it.

The journal book of Yosef son of Amos, and Divorah, of Beyt-Lechem. It is the chronicle of our Hannah.

First Entry (8th day of the month of Tishrei)
By many standards, today I am a young man, full of strength and life, who was blessed by God. I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one. I have a good name, which is priceless among my people. I have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it. The Lord led me to my love, my wife, Divorah, and we have had three full years of joy together. God even favored us enough to give her a child, a daughter, whom we named Hannah. She has been the most precious thing I’ve ever known. Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it’s been overwhelming.

Her mother and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could. We wished we could record everything! That is how this journal came to be. With all of our savings, and the help of our parents and my uncle Shlomoh (one of the Temple scribes), we bought these few pages. Yesterday, for Hannah’s first birthday, we dedicated them to keep her story, to be a book of memories.

For all of that, a day ago you could have called me blessed by the Lord indeed.

But, today, let no one talk of the Lord’s favor. Let no one speak his name before me. May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips, or those of anyone in my household, while I live and breathe.

Yesterday morning my Hannah had her first birthday. She was dark-haired and green-eyed like her mother, and big for her age with a good-sized head, like me. She had become so aware – she recognized us, and her grandparents. She would smile and laugh when we entered the room, and fuss when we walked out. She could just speak a little. She was a crawler, and we couldn’t keep her out of all the wrong places. Just a year old.

But yesterday evening, on the seventh day of the first month, a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders. Divorah and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door. They didn’t ask about the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if I was a member of the latest Jewish rebellion. They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers. They clubbed me nearly to death. And those Roman dogs wrenched Hannah from her mother’s hands. So, today…today her life has been cut short.

I couldn’t protect her, and she is gone for it, and I cannot fathom it. My wife hasn’t spoken a word.

I write all of this now, this the first and the last entry in Hannah’s book, because it is the only thing I have left to record of her. And, now, to hell with these memories. To hell with this life.

Second Entry (12th day of the month of Shevat)
Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages that I swore never to write in again. I’ll confess that it’s not the first time… I’ve read and re-read those words often since that day. No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back to this page to remember. More than once I’ve even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old. But it seemed wrong to change this book. It seemed like moving on.

I write today for one reason: because new facts have come to light in the history of Hannah’s life, from someone unexpected. Not long ago I met again a young man named Yohanan, John, one of the sons of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee. John’s mother is my wife’s cousin, and I knew the boy; he spent some time here on the farm when he was younger.

Anyway, I was in the city on the Shabbat, and had been told that John was invited to teach at synagogue. A strange thought for the son of fisherman, but apparently the local Rabbi wanted to know more about another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, Jesus. So, I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, the “spirit” that was upon him and the peace that he exuded. I greeted him afterwards and he remembered me; he took me to lunch and started to open his heart to me.

That is when he mentioned Hannah’s name.

He explained that they believe this Jesus is the Messiah. Right away I interrupted him and said, “I’ve heard all of that talk before and I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.” But, before I could go, he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village that night so many years ago.

He said, “My Master threatens the evil rule of men like Herod and Herod’s sons, because he is our true king. He is God’s great savior.” And I couldn’t respond. John spoke of how this Rabbi had been born to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents. He described it as signs that the kingdom of God is coming and a new age is beginning, one where even grief like mine will be no more.

I admit his words started to take me in — his facts were sound as far as I could tell. It had always indeed been a point of pride in our village that Israel’s king was destined to come from the birthplace of David. Even now, I can remember the Roman census in that second year that Divorah and I had been married. The perennial rumors about a Christ child had been unusually active and vivid at the time, and we had noticed – I remember we had taken it all as a good omen because only months later Divorah had become pregnant with Hannah. “Think of it,” we would whisper to one another, “our little one growing up to see the reign of the Coming King….”

And, in that moment, I came to myself. I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night. I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they know what life is like here and now, on earth. I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose for his son to be born to peasants in an unsecured and unknown town. I asked him why this God speaks in fables and dreams, while men like Herod give orders to armed legions. I asked him why it was only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone that night. I asked him where he saw a Savior’s reign, in this dust-covered Rabbi of his.

I can’t remember John’s reply, if he even made one, but as I regained my temper I thanked him for the lunch and arose from the table. I wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar, or the Chief Priest for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation. If I am honest, I feel no better for my rage. Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me. I have no answers to my questions. I no longer know who I am or why I live.

I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story. God have mercy on us.

Third Entry (20th day of the month of Nisan)
Today, I write here for the last time because Hannah’s record in this book comes to a close. And, as I read again my last words on this page, it feels like ages have past for me since my time with John on that peculiar Shabbat. I recall that over the days and weeks after our lunch together, I couldn’t take my mind away from his words, or the memory of his presence; it began to gnaw at me. The possibility that John was telling the truth sparked a fire of emotions – one moment I would long to risk some hope in God again, the next moment I would be overwhelmed with confusion and contempt at how this would-be Messiah had a part in shattering Hannah’s life. It was the first time in more than thirty years that I had truly felt something. It was the first time in so long that I cared to feel something, or that I dared to wonder at what might be. In the end, it drove me to seek Jesus out, face to face.

I started by following on the edge of his crowds, very skeptically at first. Then, through John, I was able to sit with him, and speak to him on occasion. I don’t know how to describe the experience except that the same presence and Spirit that I first saw in John in the synagogue, I experienced in this man in its fullness. It was clear that he was the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

Can I remember when I first truly started to consider him the Messiah? No. It was gradual. It came slowly as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones. But something particular in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me. Occasionally, he would speak of death, and of his own suffering. He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again. He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, the words rang in my heart. The crowds asked him not to say such things. They foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies. But, in my mind, he was hinting that something deeper was at work. And we soon saw.

Before any of us could have imagined it, Jesus had indeed arrived in Jerusalem. He had been greeted like an emperor, and had seen the hearts of the people poised to crown him their ruler. But, only a moment later during the heart of the Passover, he had just as quickly been betrayed, arrested, and put on trial.

Almost all of the others fled in fear, or they stayed only to shout in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal. But I felt stirred to draw nearer to him than ever before. What did I have left to lose? What could the soldiers take from me now? I hadn’t come to see a victorious king; I came to stand beside the man, my Teacher, who had led me back to life. So I did, and I prayed for him.

The scene broke my heart, and infuriated me, and I wanted to cry out to Heaven, but suddenly something else struck me. I had wrestled with these same feelings before, for some thirty years. I realized then that Herod’s assault on my Hannah, intended for the newborn Messiah, had been in the same vein and for the same purpose as what I witnessed now. It was the same injustice, cruelty, tyranny. And one thing was clear that day: the evil right in front of me, and that which stained my family’s past, was none of God’s doing. It was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do. It was an effort on the part of darkness to quench his great light.

In that moment, I repented from every word of blame and curse I had ever laid at the Lord’s feet. God’s doing had been to spare his own son in Bethlehem, not so that he could flee to a life of safety, but so that he could return one day to shed his own blood. Jesus, the Passover lamb. As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured it, it was confirmed in my heart that this was my Lord and my God.

I stayed that day until the end. I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, watched his breathing cease, and saw the women mourn. I thought back to his many promises and wondered what could be next. Then, only days ago I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers: “the grave could not hold him.” Today, I believe I know what that message means.

I run through his words in my mind. He once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And didn’t he say, “Because I live, you shall live also”? I remember it. And I believe it.

I believe that, although God not intervene in that moment years ago to spare Hannah’s earthly life, today she lives also in Christ Jesus.

So, yes, today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close. But that is only because it continues elsewhere. As does mine. And I can think of no better words to close this book than these that I borrow from my brother, John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors, Amen.

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Dealing with Death and Suicide on Gaudete Sunday

Sudden death gut punches us with the dreaded reality that life will never be the same. This Sunday is going to be especially difficult for one church and several families this year. I just received a report that a wonderful elderly couple was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. They were both great people, and people of faith. I don’t know all of the details, as if anyone can, but the report thus far suggests that declining health may have led to this drastic decision. I hurt for their families and desperately hurt for these precious people.

How can anyone who believes in Christmas joy and Easter resurrection see these terrible acts as a viable option in the face of life’s difficulties? Death at one’s own hand flies in the face of the joy and hope that we Christians profess. I personally know life is difficult, but there is no easy way out for anyone in these situations. The survivors of such actions are scarred for life, including the generations that follow. There are palliative methods to ease life’s burdens through the comfort of family, friends, the church, and hospice, without the necessity of such desperate action.

Certainly I don’t think that suicide is an unpardonable sin. I have known situations where people simply could not see beyond their hands, so to speak. The darkness so fully enveloped them that poor decisions were made. They were momentarily out of their best minds or thinking to a degree, and if human courts let people off due to temporary insanity, how much more will the courts of heaven? God is a God of grace and mercy and that is my firm hope in this situation, and there is little else to go on in this bewildering time. A decision was made, whether with rational culpability or irrational nonsense, and lives and families have been shattered. Who in their right mind would want people to remember the circumstances of their death instead of all the years of faith, good deeds, and positive character traits? It just doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s the point. We will never know the whole story so we’re left wondering and crying.

I just wish that I and others might have picked up on the warning signs, and somehow my mind keeps debating if Christianity as a whole has let such people down. Instead of encouraging an endurance that comes from hope and a joy that is not dependent on circumstances, we have often taught people to count on themselves for supposed solutions. The essence of the Christian faith is to count on God, but we are either too distracted by the world or prosperity-Gospel advocates to know that band-aids and panaceas only mask pain, not defeat it.

Although specifically difficult for grieving families, this coming Sunday is still Gaudete Sunday, otherwise known as “Joy Sunday” with its pink candle on the Advent Wreath.  “Gaudete” comes from the Latin gaudium which means “joy,” and it’s the source of our contemporary word “gaudy.” When I think of something that’s gaudy, I think “tacky” more than joyful. In the face of any tragic news I have to wonder whether we are joyful enough as Christians to be called tacky. Do we dare proclaim faith, hope, and even joy as an affront to the dour and horrible machinations of the forces that would cause pain and suffering? We are fighting a war between joy and despondency, and lights and tinsel aren’t weapons enough.

Jesus, the conqueror of death and despair, is the King who has come and is coming again, yet I’m afraid that we have domesticated his incarnation with decorations and pleasantries so much that we miss the audacious joy, the tacky but unconquerable hope that flows from the amazing news of a Savior who left the safety of eternity and immersed himself in time to be with us in our every trial. As a result we have gotten so caught up in the peripheral trappings of Christmas that we have been less than Incarnational with those hurting around us. We keep silent and dare not be tacky enough to intrude and enter their pain. It’s high time to be tacky once again. This is Gaudete Sunday’s solemn reminder to me in the face of this tragedy.

Someone anonymously said, “The cross leads to joy and not just happiness. There is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a checkbook that has money, a car that works, a good date for Saturday night. Happiness is the absence of major hassles, or terrorism or crime; happiness is kids getting good report cards and spouses getting a raise. Happiness is something we know as enhancement or protection of our own lives. Joy comes in connection with another or with Jesus. Joy can happen without money or a working car. Joy happens when we get to the core of life and realize that love is at the center. Joy befriends us; love accompanies us. Jesus is God-with-us and will never leave or forsake us. Joy is not the absence of suffering; it is the presence of God.”

May God grant peace to all those who are suffering that they may know the audacity of Christ’s presence, the essence of joy. Happiness is fleeting while joy endures forever. Perhaps more than ever, we need Gaudete Sunday this year.

What If God Was One of Us?

N. Wilder’s “Grace Confounding” states about Jesus, “He came when he wasn’t expected as he always does, though a few on the night-shift had the release early. He came where he wasn’t expected as he always does, though a few Magis were tipped off…he is always one step ahead of us.”

 In a similar vein, one of my all-time favorite television shows was “Joan of Arcadia” which even in its title reminds one of Joan of Arc and her visions of God. If you can buy the boxed series set or catch reruns, please do it! The show takes place in a ficitional town named “Arcadia” where Joan Girardi lives. The show was the creation of Barbara Hall, a spiritual seeker herself, who dares us to consider that God may be one of us. In the show God appeared in a variety of cryptic personages: as a bum, a goth teenager, a little girl, etc. Please don’t get hung up on the imagery, especially as Joan Osborne’s song, “What if God Was One of Us?” plays at each show’s opening. It seems sacrilegious at first glance to see God, the Divine, as “a stranger on a bus, a slob like one of us (one of Osborne’s lines),” but Jesus’ incarnation in Bethlehem dares us to broaden our horizons and ask how this world would be different if we did treat the people we would normally ignore as if they were God. I’m not suggesting some heresy that we treat people as if they were gods in an idolatrous way, but as if they were carrying the precious imago dei, the Image of God, within them. That doesn’t seem to be too much to ask, especially if the end result is worth the risk.

 Perhaps you have heard the story of the monastery that was dying for lack of new monks. There was a negative spirit that permeated the whole place, evidenced by much jealousy and blatant apathy toward one another in the community. In desperation, the monastery’s leader went to the hut of a wise hermit deep in the forest. The abbot described the lack of love among the monks and asked for advice about what could be done to foster better relations. The hermit simply responded by saying, “The Messiah is among you.” He said nothing more. Upon his return to the monastery the abbot told the monks what the hermit had said. As a result, people who were once either envious or apathetic about one another started asking themselves, “Could the Messiah be Brother Andrew the baker, who humbly does his task?” or “Could the Messiah be Brother Simon the chief gardener, who with great kindness provides us with food to eat?” Their wonderings included everybody and the effect was miraculous. Because of the wise hermit’s statement the monks began treating each other with such love and respect that it indeed seemed that the Messiah was among them. The monastery began to grow and thrive because of their newfound love for one another.

 The Messiah is among us, too. Of course, I know that Jesus is the Messiah, the one-and-only. However, we’ll never begin to experience the power of the gospel until we SEE Jesus in everybody, both friend and foe around us. Open your eyes to God’s fresh incarnation in Jesus Christ!

Birthing Babies and Celebrating the God Who is Present

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I had the ecstatic pleasure and fearsome opportunity 28 to years ago deliver my son, Josh. Narcie had been born two years earlier, in 17 minutes in the wrong hospital. Cindy is quick on delivery! We wouldn’t make it to the hospital 40 miles away so Narcie was born in the old Chesterfield General Hospital in Cheraw, SC – no OB doctor there, they had to call in a local General Practitioner. I was in a gown before he was. Then two years later, the day after I had finished reading an emergency child birth book, I came in from visiting church members and Cindy said, “I think this is it!”
Narcie was asleep in her room. I called the designated friend who was going to watch her while we went the needed 40 miles. But once again we didn’t make it. We didn’t even get out of the bathroom. The friend helped ease Cindy up, and I got on the business end. Then Josh, Mr. Torpedo Head, started crowning. Thank God for the book and having been raised in an agricultural context ( won’t say any more), I prayed, yelled, panicked, but did what I really supposed to do: turn him, ease him out, then grabbed an ear-bulb syringe from the medicine cabinet and suctioned Josh’s nose and mouth and he started breathing and crying. Whew! It was also a good thing I had just finished painting the bathroom just a few days before, not having any idea it was going to become a delivery room! God is sooooo… Good! Then I called the Rescue Squad. They came and cut the cord, and I went outside and tossed my cookies. Cindy was great and the rest is almost history.
I say “almost” because now the circle comes back around. Josh’s dear wife, Karen, turned 26 today, February 23 and Josh turns 28 this Friday, February 25, and, guess what, she’s pregnant, expecting a granddaughter at the end of March. I hope all goes well for her and the precious K.L.M. Baby Girl they are going to have. We have no idea what the initials stand for, but that’s better than okay.  Karen is such a wonderful person! She just finished up her second undergraduate degree – this one a B.S.N and she passed the NCLEX exam last week so now she’s a R.N., registered nurse. Most of you know that Josh, like his sister is United Methodist Clergy. He gets ordained an Elder, like his sister, this summer at Annual Conference. Anyway, best wishes to Josh and Karen on their birthdays, and K.L.M. as her arrival looms.
I am so thankful for all 3 of our children: Narcie, Josh, and Caleb. Caleb, by the way, was born at the new Cheraw hospital. It’s hard to imagine in a small 1500 population like Cheraw, SC that all 3 of our children were born there and in 3 different places! God bless Cheraw and all of our dear church members there. We ended up moving away from my initial 3-point charge and spent 9 years in 26-miles-away-Hartsville, SC, but then we were sent back to First UMC, Cheraw for a four-year-stint. The doctor who delivered Narcie, Dr. Jim Thrailkill, was a wonderful parishioner, God rest his soul.
The point of all this isn’t to do a weird Birthday Greeting to our kids and soon-to-be-born granddaughter. I’m just reminded on this day between Josh and Karen’s birthdays that God’s providence and love are an ever present help no matter the situation. There’s plenty of junk to go around in this sin-marred world. I am thankful to God for the goodness that’s left and how Jesus redeems it all if we let Him. So, in the midst of the continuation of Narcie’s brain tumor saga, and all the other stuff that makes every day a challenge – today I am grateful for the personal epiphanies that I have seen with my own eyes: 3 children, 2 great children-in-law, 2 grandchildren and #3 on the way, a wonderfully patient wife, and a host of people who day in-day out reflect a real relationship with Jesus Christ, the Hope of Glory. Yes, indeed, I have beheld His glory.

Happy Valentine’s Day to Gabby Gifford, Mark Kelly and the Rest of Us

>I’m thinking about Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ and her husband Mark Kelly’s marriage as Valentine’s Day approaches and the O. Henry-esque “Gift of the Magi” decision that they are making about his Space Shuttle flight. I’m wishing them both Godspeed along with every couple across the world who have been through life’s gauntlet. With Cindy’s recent surgery and Narcie’s continuing saga I know that I’ve seen great love from my son-in-law Mike and I hope I’ve been an okay nurse to my dear wife. Here’s wishing a safe flight to Mark Kelly and Rep. Giffords.

Every disaster connects us, doesn’t it? For instance, cross my fingers, the Space Shuttle “Columbia” disaster contained a lesson for all humanity. There were Americans on board, of course, but there were also connections to India and Israel. Diversity in race and gender was also present. Space exploration has been a great human leveler. It combats our xenophobic national pride and from the vantage point of space we embrace the whole planet.

Astronaut Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud from Saudi Arabia once said after a shuttle trip: “The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.” The losses of seven souls on February 1 were not just American, Indian, or Israeli, but a diminishment of all humankind.

John Donne of England said it well, however antiquated, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

In every death, whether of innocence or life, the ripple effect amplifies the tragedy to universal proportions. This is what makes Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden speak for all humankind and perpetuate self-will over God’s will. Original Sin may explain our human condition en masse, but it also finds its proof in the everyday actions of you and me. Is there anything original about Original Sin anymore? Each of us has done our voluntary part to carry on the bent to sinning with which we were born.

But, just as there has been a ripple effect of sin, there is the ripple effect of love. St. Paul said it something like this in Romans: Through one man Adam sin entered the world; through one man Jesus Christ comes grace. The ever-expanding example of love begun in Jesus reflects God’s best hope for humanity. In Jesus we see the victory of selflessness over selfishness.

The crew of the Columbia exhibited this same selflessness. Every journey into space is a selfless cry for a cosmic view of humanity. By its very nature, space exploration should imply an effort to better all people. From space we get a God’s-eye view of the world that comes closest to God’s own motivation to leave behind the safe confines of eternity and become bound by time and space in incarnation. In the selfless sacrifice and risk-taking of the shuttle crew we glimpse the God-like motivation to lay aside personal gain for the good of all.

James Gillespie Magee aptly describes this selfless heavenly vantage point:

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew –

And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high unsurpassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”