January 28, 2009

By Whose Authority?

by Brian Volck
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28

A little word history from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Authority: First written appearance in English: 1230, autorite "book or quotation that settles an argument," from from L. nom. auctoritas ,"invention, advice, opinion, influence, command," from auctor "author." Used to mean "power to enforce obedience" is from 1393; meaning "people in authority" is from 1611. Authoritative first recorded 1609. Authoritarian is recorded from 1879.

Power: First written appearance in English: 1297, from L. potis "powerful" Used to mean "a state or nation with regard to international authority or influence" dates from 1726. Powerful is c.1400. The powers that be is from Rom. 13:1.

The relationship between authority and power is long, complex and subtle. Distinguishing them in common usage today is challenging. Was Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Barack Obama’s senatorial replacement an act of power, authority, or both? When I tell my sons, both of whom are now taller than I, to do something they don’t want to, am I relying on the power of the purse, the authority of paternity, or some combination?

These days, the word, “power,” carries a whiff of brutality and illegitimacy. No one, for example, brags about “speaking truth to authority.” Then again, “authority” isn’t what it used to be, with countless bumper stickers demanding we question it.

Yet, even in the twenty-first century, humans haven’t escaped the conundrums arising at the necessary intersection of freedom, community, authority and power. The problem has been around a long, long time.

Jesus teaches in the synagogue “as one having authority and not as the scribes.” He also casts out “an unclean spirit” – who, like Legion, know(s) with whom it or they contend – and the amazed onlookers cry, “A new teaching with authority! He commands even unclean spirits and they obey him.” It’s not immediately clear how authoritative teaching and power to cast out spirits go together, but the residents of Capernaum apparently take it for granted.

Today – and particularly in the developed world – Christians have more trouble making that connection. Paul reminds us that we are not all called to the gift of prophecy – a helpful reminder, given what Deuteronomy promises to those who falsely speak in God’s name. But if not all called, who is? In our churches, where or to whom do we turn for authoritative guidance? If the Bible, then how is it read and interpreted? If in wise persons, then which ones? Pastors? Spiritual directors? The Saints of our Tradition? Bishops and Patriarchs? An “inner light?”

In the Ekklesia, the community into which Christ calls you, where is Jesus’ “new teaching with authority” found? How and with whom will you find the strength to follow it?


January 20, 2009

Epiphany 3B

by Jesse Larkins
Mark 1:14-20
I have a brother who is a bit of an adrenaline junky. In many ways he is not unlike most 26 year old boys who have no house payment, car payment, girlfriend, wife or kids: footloose and fancy free. On the other hand, there is something quite unique about my brother. It is the fact that, on average, he risks his life 2-3 times per day. You see, my brother has made a life for himself out of pushing the envelope. If you were to ask him, he would tell you that airplanes were invented to be jumped out of, mountains were made to be crawled up and then skied down, and waterfalls were created in order to slide off in 6’ pieces of molded plastic. My brother’s primary raison d’ĂȘtre is white water kayaking. He has traveled all over the world finding and conquering the world’s wildest rivers and creeks. If we didn’t share the hallmark Shuman nose, you might wonder how we are related. When it comes to taking risks, we are as different as night and day.

One time, when we were in college, my brother tried to teach me how to kayak. I lasted exactly 10 minutes…in the swimming pool. The first skill that all kayakers must learn is how to roll—that is, how to right yourself when you are flipped upside down and the suction of the river’s current is trying to keep you that way. My brother put me in the pool, flipped me upside down, and said: “Roll up.” I couldn’t do it; mostly because I panicked and flailed around under the water like I was drowning. Sitting on the edge of the pool a bit later, I asked him what went wrong. His response was something like this: “You can’t fight the water. You’ve gotta let it lead you. You’ve gotta let go of control and just go with the flow.”

“Great,” I said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll just watch you from the banks along with the rest of the crowd.” I admire my brother’s courage, fearlessness, trust, and passion, but I’m not ready to follow him down a river.

I thought of my failed kayaking experience this week as I was reading this gospel lesson about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus’ ministry, especially his healings and confrontation with demons, were probably, like my brother on the river, something quite amazing to behold. It didn’t take long until the crowds following Jesus grew and his popularity spread. Yet, throughout the gospel, when push came to shove, and Jesus said “Follow me,” there were only a few who dared to leave behind their nets and their families to truly follow him. The rich young ruler went away sad. The religious elites shouted “crucify him.” And the rest were content to remain on the banks admiring the show.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him, it was during his first major preaching tour. Heading through the backwoods of ancient Israel, Jesus’ proclamation was a familiar one to those who heard him. They had heard these words before when John the Baptist came through: “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.” Many had turned and repented at these words of John. Yet, when Jesus comes with the same message, this time the one calling was the one in whose life the Kingdom of Heaven was embodied.

Finishing his sermon, he walked down to the lake shore where four men were working, and issued the ultimate altar call. “Follow Me,” he said, “and I will give you the gifts you need to embody this good news of the Kingdom in yourselves. I’m not offering you much that the world will understand—no signing bonuses, no great benefits package.

But the Kingdom of Heaven is not exactly something that will be recognized by the world on the world’s terms.

‘Follow me,’ and the Kingdom of Heaven can become YOUR proclamation.

‘Follow me’ and I will change your relationship to God.

‘Follow me,’ and I will make you fishers of people, bringing you into new relationship with everyone you meet, including your enemies.

If you trust me; if you can loosen your grip on those things you hold so dear—your house, your job, your reputation, your political opinions, your other loyalties and allegiances; if you can just stop trying to determine your future happiness on your terms and let me guide you, I can offer you a part in this Kingdom come. Are you in, or are you content to remain on the banks?” And there, in the lives of Simon, Andrew, James and John, we see what it means to truly follow Christ into the rapids, no longer content to stand on the banks as a spectator.

The rest, as they say, is history. Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropped their nets, said goodbye to Dad, and followed. Even with their questions and fears, they trusted God enough to step to the edge of the falls and give themselves fully to serving and embodying God’s Kingdom in their own lives. Though they would spend the rest of Jesus’ life seeming to stumble and misunderstand what “following” was really all about, they dared to step to the edge and “let go of control.” The moment they accepted Christ’s invitation to an entirely new way of being in the world, God empowered them to reach beyond themselves and to risk everything they had to follow. They followed Christ off the edge of the rapid, not because Christ promised that they would always land up-right at the bottom, but because the One they followed would already be at the bottom with strength enough to pull them up when they struggled.

We can be both encouraged and provoked by Simon, Andrew, James, and John. These disciples challenge us to ask what things in our lives we still struggle to control at all cost when Christ is calling us to “stop fighting the water and let go.” Yet they also encourage us to go ahead and slide off the edge of this wild adventure of discipleship though we may not know all that Christ has in store for the ride. Sure, we will have moments of choking and flailing as each of the disciples did, but the One who called us is faithful; certain to right us when we’re upside down, and ever ready to welcome us back to the journey once we’ve caught our breath.


January 19, 2009

Planning Our 2009 Gathering

by Kelly Johnson
Over the years, many EP endorsers have asked us to hold a Gathering dedicated to talking about economic issues, and at the end of last summer's gathering, the board agreed that we would move that direction for next year. Little did we know at that moment just how big an issue the economy was about to become in the U.S.

But as the planning committee began working, first we had trouble sorting out exactly which kind of economic issues we would talk about. Then, although usually a gathering is organized around a scriptural passage or theme, we could not settle on just one. Ultimately what struck us was less the importance of any one passage and more the importance of the scriptural story as the story of God’s economy. Or to put it another way, what struck us was the idea that the true economy is the work of God.

Our word ‘economics’ is related to the Greek word oikonomia, which refers to household management. (The Greeks had a separate word, chrematistike, to name efforts to make a profit in money.) So as we organize this gathering, we are thinking about questions like these: What is God’s household management (or home economics) style? How does God care for creation? And how do we who are invited to share God’s life participate in that economy—and get in its way? In particular, to continue our conversation on racism from last summer, in what ways now does our use of wealth build up the body and in what ways does it divide us?

Currently we have three keynote speakers confirmed, each of whom will address part of the story of God’s economy and our share in it. Bill Cavanaugh will be speaking on creation; Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove on Jubilee and Jesus’ teaching; and Kathy Grieb on Paul’s collection for the Jerusalem community. Workshops are being organized around four types of congregational practice: congregations that run businesses together, congregations that do community organizing to deal with economic problems in their neighborhoods, congregations that share a common purse, and congregations that take up collections.

But these plans are just a framework for the real work of the gathering: taking time to get to know each other, to share ideas and questions, and to talk together about what our good God is doing. We hope to see you all there.


January 18, 2009

King and the Kingdom

by Debra Dean Murphy
Today as we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it's easy to forget how despised King was in his own time by many on the right and the left, by many within the church and outside it. As the frequency of his public speeches increased toward the end of his life so did his visible rage; as his preaching evolved in the last years, he moved from what Richard Lischer has called a “homiletics of identification” to a “homiletics of confrontation.” The radical politics of the Kingdom that King envisioned—for the church and the nation—did not endear him to either; it got him killed.

As author Tim Tyson has bluntly put it: "In the years since his murder, we have transformed King into a kind of innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a benign vessel that can be filled with whatever generic good wishes the occasion dictates . . .The radicalism of Dr. King's thought, the militancy of his methods, and the rebuke that he offered to American capitalism have given way to depictions of a man who never existed, caricatures invented after his death."

Today all over America, preachers and politicians will wax rhapsodic over the "I Have a Dream" speech (the palatable, overly familiar parts of it). There will be marches and parades, with blacks and whites peacefully, optimistically walking hand in hand. These will be earnest gestures of mutual respect and goodwill which I don't mean to belittle. But after the festivities, too many of us will retreat back into lives of segregated comfort and indifference, unable or unwilling to recognize, as King himself did in 1957, that "we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power."

More than 50 years later we still can't quite absorb those words. We prefer the "other" MLK--the one who affirms our own outrage at racial inequality. But when Martin insists that such injustice is inextricably linked to an economic system that makes our comfortable lives possible, even as it exploits, debases, and erases the downtrodden and dispossessed, we get nervous. We don't want the justice that King dreamed of to cost us anything.

But of course it will. Another great martyr of the church, Archbishop Oscar Romero, saw it this way, ten years after the murder of King and two years before his own death by an assassin's bullet:

Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which has turned everything upside down to proclaim blessed the poor, blessed the thirsting for justice, blessed the suffering.

Blessing the poor and suffering and those who thirst for justice: this is the upside-down work of the Kingdom that the powers will not bless--that the powers, in fact, will seek to crush at every turn. (Can we remember on this day that our own government tried to blackmail King into committing suicide?).

In all their humanness--their moral frailty and their exquisite courage--Romero, King, and a long line of saints and martyrs have borne witness to the madness of peaceableness in the midst of violence; of subversive love in the face of all-consuming hatred. And in death, in bodies brutalized by systems propped up by fear, they summon us to our own mad, subversive witness against the powers.


January 12, 2009

Heaven and Earth

by Debra Dean Murphy
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51 (Second Sunday After the Epiphany)

Each year on the second Sunday after the Epiphany, the lectionary steers us away from the Synoptics, where we have been immersed in birth narratives, visiting magi, and the baptism of Jesus, and into the first part of John’s gospel, which contains none of these historical particulars. But the Johannine detour is significant for Epiphany, for these texts deal with the revelation of Jesus to Israel and to the world, making the claim that this One from Nazareth (“can anything good come from there?”) is the eternal Logos, Word made flesh, whose glory we have beheld.

It is the calling of the disciples that preoccupies the fourth evangelist here. (The Lectionary for Mass focuses on Peter and Andrew; the RCL treats the call of Philip and Nathanael). In Jesus’ conversation with Nathanael it becomes clear where the gospel writer’s interests lie. In summoning his followers, Jesus reveals his knowledge of them and of Israel’s promised future. Nathanael, a “true Israelite,” receives a promise that recalls another Israel(ite)—Jacob—who dreamed of God’s angels ascending and descending a ladder. What Jacob’s dream pointed to has now, says Jesus, come to pass (v. 51). What the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth makes possible is the meeting of heaven and earth for the salvation of the whole created order.

Like the boy Samuel in this week’s Old Testament lesson, Jesus stands poised to call Israel to newness of life, to a new way of imagining what God-with-us will mean. The invitation reads simply: “Come and see.” Philip persuades Nathanael with these words; a few chapters later the Samaritan woman will issue the same summons to another skeptical bunch. What Jesus invites us to cannot be grasped simply as head-knowledge; it is lived practice. “Watch me,” Jesus seems to be saying, “I will show you who God is and who you are to be. This will take some time.”

While explications of this week’s Epistle lesson often fixate on the sins of gluttony and illicit intercourse, another interpretive strand seems promising, especially in light of the call narratives of John and 1 Samuel: We live out the call of God in specifically embodied ways. “Glorifying God in our bodies” has to do with food and sex, to be sure, but it also encompasses an array of bodily practices (hospitality, for one) that bear witness to goodness of God in the world.

And, finally, Psalm 139 sums up the truth of God’s knowledge of us and of God’s call and claim on our lives. Here we are reminded that knowledge is not only episteme, but ontos; not mere cognition but radical participation. God’s knowledge of us and our knowledge of God are enacted as we exist as members of one another and of the Triune God.

As we glimpse such participation this side of the eschaton in, say, the Eucharist, we come to know something of the meeting of heaven and earth that makes possible the salvation of the whole created order.


January 06, 2009

Remember Your Baptism and Be Thankful

by Erin Martin
Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

I remember my baptism very well.

It was fifteen years ago, and I felt that as a recent college graduate I was at a crossroads in my life. I remember that I wanted to start new, to wash away some of the painful choices I had made in my life and recommit myself to God. My mother was attending a Baptist church at the time, and so I sat before her pastor and expressed my earnest desire to be baptized. When he lowered me into the water and then raised me up again, the first air I breathed felt like new life to me. I felt like I had died and been raised with Christ.

Years later as an ordained Methodist minister the majority of the baptisms I perform look nothing like my own. Mostly I hold infants in my arms and pour water on their heads. Their rebirth in Christ will be far less tangible to them, but by no means less real.

I have come to understand that remembering one’s baptism has less to do with remembering the “experience” of one’s baptism and far more to do with remembering the “significance” of one’s baptism. While the experience of baptism is varied, the significance of baptism is unchanging. In baptism, all persons put on Christ, and for that we can be very thankful.

When Jesus goes to the River Jordan to be baptized by John it is not because Jesus is in need of repentance. From the beginning, John understands that the roles here are reversed. Jesus should be the one doing the baptizing. John declares that he is not even worthy to stoop down and untie Jesus’ sandal strap, let alone be the one to lower Jesus into the water and raise him up. In Jesus’ baptism, the one who is greater submits to the one who is lesser, and it is the humility of this submission that reveals Jesus’ greatness to us.

In his Interpretation commentary, Lamar Williamson explains that Mark’s placement of the baptism narrative in the prologue to the gospel and not within the public ministry of Jesus serves to establish the identity and authority of Jesus. In Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are ripped apart in the same way that at Jesus’ death the Temple curtain is ripped from top to bottom. Williamson writes, “In both cases, what had long been sealed is suddenly flung open.”

With Jesus, the long-deferred prophetic hope is realized, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isa. 64:1). According to Williamson, the significance of Jesus’ baptism is that he is who God says he is, “beloved Son.” In the same way that Jesus’ baptism establishes his identity so too our baptism establishes our identity. The significance of our baptism is that we are who God says we are, beloved sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ.

Remembering our baptism entails glorying in Jesus’ identity as Son of God and glorying in our identities as children of God in Christ.

Clayton Schmit explains our deep connection to Christ through baptism in this way. He writes, “In Jesus’ baptism, he was fully identified with us as human creatures. In our baptism, we become fully identified with him. His life in God is our new life. His capacity to bend to God’s will is our strength to live a godly life. His love of all is our charity toward others.”

Remembering our deep connection with Christ in baptism has nothing to do with form, how much water is used, whether or not one is sprinkled or immersed.

Remembering our deep connection with Christ in baptism has everything to do with receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit that comes to us regardless in baptism.

Through the Holy Spirit we are made new. Through the Holy Spirit we have been clothed with Christ. Through the Holy Spirit we have been given the incredible gift of being made children of God. There is no greater gift. May we receive it with gratitude.

Thanks be to God!


January 05, 2009

Amahl and the Night Visitors

by Debra Dean Murphy
O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn't need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

"Amahl and the Night Visitors"
Gian-Carlo Menotti, 1950

In 1950 the National Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti to write an opera for live broadcast on the fledgling, new medium of television. On Christmas Eve of the following year, Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered on NBC.

Menotti grew up with the European tradition of the Three Kings bringing gifts to children on Epiphany. Various stories and legends, many of them humorous, came to be associated with the Kings who, by the eighth century, had been identified as Melchior, Balthazar, and Caspar. (Tradition has it that Balthazar was Ethiopian and thus paintings of the Three Kings through the centuries have depicted him as black).

"My favorite King," Menotti once wrote, "was King Melchior because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother's favorite was King Caspar, whom he insisted was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don't know why he was so sure about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Caspar never brought him all the gifts he requested."

"To these Three Kings," Menotti continues, "I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead I went to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town."

Years later when Menotti accepted NBC's commission to write a one-hour-long opera in English, he found himself uninspired and struggling for ideas. One afternoon while walking gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he happened upon a classic painting of the magi (Hieronymous Bosch's "Adoration of the Kings,” pictured above) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Amahl and the Night Visitors tells the story of a poor, crippled shepherd boy prone to telling tall tales. One winter evening he sits outside the house he shares with his weary, widowed mother, admiring a star "as large as a window." When Amahl tries to describe the beautiful sight to his mother, she is not amused; for her, this is yet another in a long line of fanciful tales made up by the inventive, untrustworthy Amahl. After some threats (by the mother) and promises (by Amahl), the two settle down for the night on their beds of straw.

Soon they are awakened by three knocks on the door. Amahl hobbles to the door, opens it, and finds a King standing there. He is awestruck, but what to tell his mother? He tries the truth, which does not satisfy—she sends him back to the door again insisting that he return with the facts. This time there are two Kings! Oh, dear. The third time he opens the door Amahl discovers what he must report to his increasingly angry and impatient mother: "The Kings are three and one of them is black!"

(Later in the opera there's a brief exchange between Amahl and Balthazar that deals subtly with race—Menotti's own plea for understanding and equality to his pre-civil rights era audience).

When Amahl's mother realizes that there are indeed three Kings at her front door she welcomes them into their humble home. While they settle in with their things, she leaves to gather wood for the fire. In her absence, Amahl peppers the Kings with questions, discovering, among other things, that Caspar carries a box with three drawers containing, in ascending order of importance, magic stones, beads, and black sweet licorice.

When the mother returns she sends Amahl to the homes of their neighbors to beg for food and drink for the Kings. She then asks the Kings about the gifts they are carrying—the gold, especially. She's curious about the child they seek and the Kings themselves are not sure whom it is the star is leading them to. The mother, tired and resentful of her circumstances, wonders if her own son might be the child they seek.

After a show of hospitality by the neighboring shepherds (staged as a festive dance), everyone goes to sleep for the night. Amahl’s mother, though, cannot get the gold out of her mind. What she could do for her crippled, hungry child with all that gold! “Do rich people know what to do with their gold?” she asks bitterly.

Just one piece . . . they would never miss it . . . for my child . . . for my child. As she reaches quietly for the gold, she is caught by the Kings’ servant and pandemonium ensues. “Thief!” they all shout, “Thief! Give it back! Give it back!”

Amahl, ever protective of his mother, tries to comfort her, and the two collapse into a heap of humiliation, exhaustion, and sobs. One of the Kings, wise to what he has just witnessed, tells the woman that she may keep the gold—the child they seek doesn’t need it (see words from libretto above). When the mother realizes what sort of child is coming into the world, she returns the gold and wishes she had a gift of her own to offer. Amahl impulsively suggests that he give his crutch to the child—“who knows he may need one?” And when he hands over the crutch he finds that he can walk; he has been healed by the child the three kings seek.

For many years it has been a tradition in my family to see a production of Amahl during the Christmas season. My boys, now 17 and 22, practically know the opera by heart (it's only an hour long—and it’s in English!) and we used to enjoy singing great chunks of it on long car trips. We have seen many productions over the years: some done by professional opera companies, others by college music departments, still others by ambitious, accomplished church choirs.

Every time I see this opera or listen to a recording of it, I am moved again by the humor and the pathos, the silliness and the seriousness—all tangled up together in a story and a musical score of surprising simplicity and unexpected depth. And I am reminded that in the Epiphany tradition of the Three Kings we can claim again the gift of the Child who has built his kingdom on love, on love alone.


January 01, 2009

Wild Grace Abounding

by Joel James Shuman
Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany - Jan. 6)

In Canto I of Dante’s Purgatorio (the second of three volumes of the Divine Comedy), Dante and his guide Virgil climb from the depths of hell to emerge tired and dirty on the shores of the island of the Mountain of Purgation. They are immediately confronted by the appointed guardian of the island, the Roman orator Cato of Utica (d. 46 BCE), who demands they give an account of themselves.

Dante is shocked by their interlocutor, not because of his question, but because he is there at all; not only did Cato die a pagan a generation before the birth of Jesus, he took his own life in protest of the emerging power of the then nascent Roman Empire. Surely he belongs in Hell, in the awful forest of suicide, where the souls of those who took their own lives are trapped for all eternity in thorny shrubs, able to speak only when their limbs are painfully snapped off by passersby. And yet here Cato is, in Purgatory, serving the God he never knew.

The encounter with Cato is but the first of several instances in which Dante’s easy assumptions about how God works are called into question. As he proceeds through Purgatory and into Paradise, Dante is repeatedly confronted by the vastness – and the wildness – of grace. God extravagantly offers salvation to whomever God pleases, such that by the end of the Comedy, Dante can say of God only that He is the “love that moves the sun and other stars.”

As well-heeled instruments of Roman Imperial power, King Herod and the religious elites who advised him cared deeply about order, which they maintained, in large part, by the systematic control of the religious lives of the people in and around Jerusalem. They were bound to see the Magi from the east not simply as oddities, but as threats; what was God doing revealing the birth of the Messiah to these strange foreign astrologers? What theological category could account for that? What might happen next?

Epiphany is the church’s annual celebration of the revelation of the God of Israel to the Gentiles. Just so, it is an occasion to be reminded of the wildness of God’s grace. That grace is so abundant, so boundless, so beyond our control that it can at any time at all shatter our assumptions about where God might show up. Let us be attentive this week to God’s presence in our lives, remembering that the One who made Himself present through an infant in a manger, and who used the stars to call strangers from a distant land to celebrate that infant’s birth, takes great delight in surprising us with His wild grace.



by Debra Dean Murphy
When I was in the fourth grade my teacher, Mr. VanNostran, asked us to write our own definition of the word “hope.” I don’t remember the occasion or the context for the assignment; I don’t even remember what I wrote. But I do remember that a few days later, Mr, Van (as we called him) read aloud another student’s definition. The boy, whose name was Paul, was absent that day, and Mr. Van took the opportunity, I think, to teach the rest of us something about ourselves, something about the world, and something about the word “hope.”

Paul was a nice kid—he was quiet and he was poor. Living as we did in rural West Virginia, none of us in that class of fourth graders came from wealthy families. Most of us came from similar economic backgrounds. We were all of modest means—some a little better off than others, maybe, but not markedly so.

But even in places like Appalachia, and especially in places like elementary, middle, and high schools, there are fixed systems of order and rank, based mostly on privilege and popularity. And Paul was not popular. His family was not privileged—at least not in the sense of having the security and advantages that come with money. I don’t remember that Paul was ever mistreated, but I know now with the wisdom that comes with age, that children can be cruel, even when they don’t mean to be, and that sometimes what is most cruel is the indifference with which we regard those around us. We were indifferent to Paul—not overtly unkind, but nonetheless uninterested and unconcerned.

And so I remember to this day Paul’s definition or explanation of the word “hope,” read aloud by a visibly moved Mr. VanNostran, sometime during the school year of 1972: “I hope someone needs me.”

I remember the silence with which we greeted those words. And it wasn’t that Mr. Van gave us a lecture about how each of us should be a better friend to Paul; about how we needed to notice people like Paul who are often invisible in a social world where being cool is the pinnacle of achievement. He didn’t preach to us about the shallowness of giggly fourth-grade girls that would only intensify as we headed toward junior high and high school. He didn’t have to say any of that. Paul’s words had moved us, too. “I hope someone needs me.”

As I’ve thought about that experience off and on through the years, I’ve come to believe that true hope is ultimately about the deepest longing each of us has for community, communion, connection. Christian hope is not wishful thinking; it is not cross-your-fingers optimism. It is, instead, an abiding trust in the good news that God seeks our good, even as God desires fellowship with us.

Our hope as Christians is that we are moving ever more closely toward that communion with God for which we were created, a being-in-relationship that is realized (imperfectly) here and now as we are Christ's body in a broken world.

Advent/Christmas/Epiphany are seasons of hope: Hope that we will once again embrace the scandal of the incarnation, the first advent; hope that we will be found faithful at the second advent; and hope that we will live true to the call of Christ in the meantime. But hope is not sentimental, and God forgive us for the many ways we sentimentalize Advent and Christmas and the gospel itself.

“I hope someone needs me.” The great good news of the gospel is that God needs us—not in order to be God, but so that God’s purposes might be worked out; so that all might be brought into the joy of communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, where genuine love, lasting peace, and enduring hope abide. Now and forever.