Charity. Praying candles in a temple.

I stood and watched him sleeping in his grandmother’s bed. “His name is Ezekiel”, she said.  “He blind.”  He seemed normal enough.  Small for his age, maybe, but any three year old would be  dwarfed by the immense king-sized bed where he lay. The grandmother, young in years as far as grandma’s go, but definitely an old soul, tucked the covers around his neck. The child never moved, but rested peacefully  and secure.

“He blind ’cause his mama was bad on dope.  She done gone to the jail down in South Georgia somewhere.   She’ll be there until.”  At first I thought she was going to finish her sentence with a stated limit on her daughter’s sentence, but she didn’t. The “until” was final and indefinite, firm but undefined.  It was understood that Ezekiel’s mother was going to be incarcerated for a very long time.  “I got custody of all her kids, except two.  The other one’s is with my other daughter.  They was older, and I just didn’t have room for all them.” She had four of her grandchildren in her care, the “other daughter” had three more, plus a few of her own.

She stroked Ezekiel’s face as she spoke, “I was on dope for a long time, then Family and Children Services took my kids.  I got myself in rehab then, and got myself off the dope, and got my chirren back.  I been clean thirty years.  Ezekiel’s mama tried to get clean a few times, but she got other stuff going on in her head, like my sister.”  The sister had rushed out the door as I was invited in, and was smoking on the front porch.  She was talking non-stop, though she was alone.  The grandmother said, “She talkin’  to her dead child. She talk to her all the time.  If she start talkin’ like she’s mad or something, I just go pet her a little bit, maybe sing a little song to her, and she be alright.  She schizophrenic, like my daughter.”

She only briefly mentioned Ezekiel’s grandfather, a fun-loving man, at least until he scrapes together enough pennies to buy a gallon of Glen Moore Gin.  It’s then he does things to children that I dare not mention in my own home, for fear the demons that torment him might hear the notion of their handiwork, and consider it an invitation into my own children’s lives.  It was the grandfather’s actions that had brought me to her home.  He had forcefully poured Glen Moore down Ezekiel’s brother’s throat while the grandmother was at church with the other children.  The child had been admitted to a local hospital with a blood alcohol content of .24.  Pretty significant for a child that weighs a little more than 50 pounds.  That’s where I came in, the Child Protective Services Investigator.  The boy was fine; grandmother had grandfather leave the home;  but per policy, I had to check on the well-being of every child in the home.

It was policy that led me to this boy, named for an Old Testament prophet; quiet, but speaking volumes to me as he slept in his grandmother’s bed.  Adherence to policy led me directly to revelation of prophecy.  Isn’t that how it so often goes?  God strikingly displays Himself in the midst of our rigid routines, and opens our eyes to brand new possibilities we haven’t considered before.

The grandmother continued stroking the child on top of his blankets as she spoke, saying, “He a cripple, too”, gesturing toward a walker in the corner that looked more like a toy than a piece of medical equipment.  “He blind, and he a cripple, but he a gift.  It’s a miracle he even alive.”

I couldn’t stop looking at him, lying there sleeping. I wondered what he dreams about.  I wonder if he dreams in pictures and color the way I dream, and wakes up in dark wonder, considering what he has envisioned in his mind.  Maybe he dreams of sounds: the bark of a dog, falling rain on a tin roof, or the rambling voice of his tortured aunt, speaking to her lost child, somewhere between reality and fantasy.

Perhaps he dreams of textures and touch:  the feel of grass beneath his bare feet, the pattern of the fabric on the couch where he sits most of the time, or the gentle, loving touch of his grandmother’s hands, calloused and firm but loving and compassionate all at the same time.

He could even dream of smells or tastes of grandma’s cooking.  She was preparing chittlins (that’s chitterlings to you Northern folk), fried green tomatoes, and turnip greens for a Thanksgiving feast later in the evening.   I swear, I haven’t been able to wash the scent out of the clothes I was wearing, despite several tries.  How could he dream of anything else?

Or maybe he dreams of things I can’t perceive.  Could it be that he dreams of those moments in his mother’s womb, times when the very hand of God traced the shape of his lips, shaped the contours of his face, and painted the color in his eyes? Could he be dreaming of times when that divine encounter was broken by the poisons that his mother transferred from her own body to his:  a poisonous fruit passing from one hand to another, from hand to mouth, processed into nourishment that was as cold as death to Ezekiel; as welcome as mustard gas to an wounded and helpless soldier lying in the mud of a battlefield, alone, in the dark, waiting for his rescue.  For my baby girls, their time in the womb was a period of nurture, warmth, safety, and care.  They cried with great objection when they had to leave.  For Ezekiel, the womb was a concentration camp, where cruel experiments were done on his body.  He was so anxious to get out, he was delivered months too soon.

Or could it be within the reach of rational thought that Ezekiel, in that broken shell of a body, with eyes that cannot and will not ever enjoy a morning sunrise, a waterfall, or the wonder of the sight of a deer jumping a fence line in fall…Could it be that his dreams are filled with the wonder of hope?

If you look at Jesus’ phrase, “Suffer the little children to come to me” (Mark 10:14), the easy translation is to say that the word “suffer”, used in this context, simply means “permit” or “allow”.  Looking at the word in these terms seems to limit Jesus to the role of a ticket taker at a movie theater, or even a backstage bouncer at a rock concert, saying, “Let’em through.”  The word “suffer” seems more severe, more imperative, more urgent than simply saying “permit”, though.  To me, it seems as though He’s saying, “Get the children to me, no matter what it costs.”

Jesus was the chesedh, full of mercy, manifestation of God, come to earth to endure the harsh justice our brokenness demanded: the justice of the unjust terms of the cross.  He was the racham, moved with compassion down to his gut God, who was so inclined to set us free from the chains of death, that he took on our skin, our shattered dreams, our great joys, and our most desperate fears,  and wrecked Himself in order to wreck them.  There was nothing that He would allow to stand between Himself and His children.  “Suffer them to come to me” was a secondary imperative: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which translates in dirt road terms as “I must get to my beloved any way I can”, was primary.  Before God demanded that children like Ezekiel be allowed into His presence, into the place where formerly only the best-dressed, most well-behaved, most mature and reverent and perfect church folk were allowed, He took the first step and came to Ezekiel.  Dare we enter into the Holy of Holies?  Can we resist, when the Holy of Holies sets Himself all round about us, in us, hopelessly, hopefully, hemming us in?  And if this God, this Word became Flesh, was so violently determined, so “suffer me to get to My children”, is it beyond the realm of reason that He might invade and occupy the dreams of this little broken boy?  Bad theology prays, “Lord, just be with us.”  Good theology understands that He is already there.  This Christ so consumed St. Patrick with His presence that the Patron of Ireland wrote in his epic prayer, The Lorica:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise…

If Christ so surrounds us, I find it unfathomable that He wouldn’t be present in Ezekiel’s dreams.

Just a few verses of scripture after Jesus’ imperative statement about children, another instance of mercy occurs:

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”

So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.

The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” (Mark 10:46-51)

I am reminded by Ezekiel that even in the worst of situations, there is the possibility of hope.  It is only fitting that I would meet this beautiful child during Advent, the time when we await the celebration of Christ’s birth, and anxiously anticipate His return.  We huddle with our friends and family, waiting to hear our Saviour say, “Suffer them to come to me”.  We wait by the roadside, trapped in our despair, listening for the One whom we can’t see, hoping for the unseen.   And when Christ passes by, not even the proper, best religious folks will be able to keep us away from Him.

Ezekiel sleeps peacefully and dreams of the day His Messiah will come: the day when Christ will say, “Suffer Ezekiel to come to me”; the day when our returning King pulls the child’s frail body to His breast like only a loving Father can, and speaks gently into his ear, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.  He will come and save you.”  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy…And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy,  and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  (Isaiah 35:3-6, 10)


 

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“Every eye shall now behold Him, robed in dreadful majesty.”

Charles Wesley

As we navigate our way through the course of the next year, I’m planning to feature posts on the Church Calendar.  I find that using the Calendar is a tremendous way to keep ourselves in tune with the life of Christ as we carry on through the daily grind of our own lives.  In and of itself, the Church Calendar is just a road map that carries us through the life story of Christ, from the anticipation of His birth all the way through His death, resurrection, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The use of the Church Calendar challenges us to think about time in a new and different way.  Shaping the ebb and flow of our lives around it transforms our minds, and is a spiritual act of worship (see Romans 12:1-2).  Hope y’all enjoy my thoughts on the Church year, and that you might make it a tool in your own spiritual life.

As the Church becomes more and more like the world, it seems that we give most of our focus to the same Christian holidays that the world acknowledges…Christmas and Easter.  Fact is, though, the other seasons of the Church year are very significant, and Christmas and Easter just aren’t quite the same without the seasons that surround them. Think about it…without Advent, which is just before Christmas, there is no Israel waiting for their Messiah to come, and Christ’s birth loses its meaning. Without Epiphany, there are no Shepherds coming to visit this child, acknowledging that He is the king that was prophesied by Isaiah and many others.  Without Easter, with the death and resurrection of Christ, there is no Pentecost, where we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  The Church Calendar binds together the Gospel narrative into a package that we can apply to our own daily lives.  It helps to consider every day as something sacred; to live out our ordinary routines in the divine light of story of Christ.

In CS Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe”,  it was always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas.  There would be no Christmas in Narnia until the saviour king, Aslan, came to take his rightful place on the throne.   Obviously, it was a difficult time for the inhabitants of Narnia, but also a time of much anticipation of the return of the king.  Prior to the coming of Christ, life was the same for the people of Israel.  They waited anxiously for their Messiah, the King that would set them free from the bondage of dark and cruel forces.

When Christ was born, it had been 400 years since they had heard a word from God. Prior to that, there were always messengers telling them that the Messiah was on his way, from Samuel to Daniel to Isaiah to Hosea;  but for 400 years, from Malachi to Matthew,  the God who had been so ever-present in the Exodus story, who had rescued prophets from the mouths of lions, shamed the priests of false gods in visible and tangible ways, made the sun stand still in times of battle for all to see, and spoke audibly to His chosen people, said nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

This was Israel’s long, difficult winter.

There was nothing the people of Israel could do but hope and believe, and it was this faith, the anticipation of something that they couldn’t fathom or taste or see or wrap their brains around, that kept them going from day to day. Faith that their King was His way to set them free, and change everything.

Like the people of Israel, we spend Advent, which literally means “coming”, waiting to celebrate the birth of our Saviour, the Messiah.  We often forget, though, that for Christians, Advent is a time for us to await with great anticipation and hope the return our King.  Our Aslan, Jesus, is the King Who Was, the King Who Is, is also the King Who Is Coming.  Advent is a time for us to not only reflect on the coming celebration of Christ’s birth in the manger, but to consider and hope for His triumphant return.

Our Lady of the New Advent
(artist unknown)

The season of Advent is comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas Day.  For the Jews, it was a time of waiting on the Messiah.  For Christians, we not only await the birthday of Christ, but we anticipate His return.  It’s a time of hope and faith for all believers.

Advent was first known as St. Martin’s Lent.  Christmas first appeared on the Church Calendar around 300 AD, and by 400 AD, St. Martin’s Lent was widely recognized by Christians.  It was a time of active waiting.  Being a dad of two little red-haired girls, both under the age of 3 years old, I understand active waiting.  When my wife and I were dating, preparing for a night out usually involved me sitting on the couch, watching television while she got ready.  Today, if we’re “waiting” to go out, nobody is sitting around.  There are a million things to do:  getting the diaper bag together, getting clean diapers and clothes on the girls, brushing hair and teeth, chasing them around when they pull off their clothes and diapers, putting them back on, etc.  I have truly learned what active waiting is all about over the past 3 years!  St. Martin’s Lent was a time of active waiting:  One would repent of sins, fast, go to confession, do good works, and pray for Christ’s return.  It wasn’t a time for sitting back and doing nothing!  It was time to prepare for the coming of our King.

In the Anglican tradition, the Sunday before Advent is called “Stir Up Sunday”, based on Hebrews 10:24 – And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.   The traditional prayer for Stir Up Sunday comes from the Book of Common Prayer, and is as follows:

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Now, there is a good and sticky part to Stir Up Sunday, as well.  If you were going to be fasting for an extended period of time in 400AD, it made sense to take anything that might go bad while you were not eating the tasty stuff, and whip it into something delicious.  The end result of that was Christmas pudding, or what we might call fruit cake.  Over time, some groups began to celebrate Stir Up Sunday on the third Sunday of Advent.  No one is really sure why, but my theory is these folks didn’t have any refrigerators, so the Christmas pudding would be rotten before it was time for the Christmas feast.  There ain’t nothing worse than a rotten fruit cake.

Welcome to the Lee Adams School of Theology.

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