Listen

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Here and at church, I have started a series on Christmas songs. Not Christmas carols or pop songs – not the ones we hear on the radio October through December—some of which grow increasingly sappy to me every year.

Not to mention the ones that are theologically troubling. (“So let’s give thanks to the Lord above ’cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” I think, I just, wait but . . . never mind.)

The Real Songs

I mean the songs of scripture. The ones sung by people right there, in real time, Ground Zero of Jesus’ birth. The ones that ushered him in. The songs that people couldn’t help belting out when they knew he was finally on the way.

We dealt with Mary first. Now, it’s time for her much older cousin-in-law.

Zechariah’s Story

Back story. Zechariah was a priest. The Bible says that he was chosen to go into the temple to light the incense and offer the prayers for the people. There’s a whole order here I didn’t know about. Three entire priests were necessary for this incense thing.

Seriously, the lack of efficiency is astounding. You’d think the Lord didn’t care at all about good, sensible time management.

One took away the ashes from the last time the fire was lit. One brought in the new smoking coals for the next offering. Finally, a third man came in to sprinkle the incense on the burning coals, and while the beautiful smell rose up to tickle his nose and calm his head, intercede in prayer for his people.

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Photo by Kirill Pershin on Unsplash

This was Zechariah’s job, and it was the most important and most sacred. I believe the fact that he was chosen for this job says something more than we realize.

Surely, in all those prayers he lifted up, one of them was a desire that the promised Messiah would come. Zechariah woulds never have let the opportunity pass him up, when given this chance to pray for the nation, to pray for its salvation through their shared hope.

Zechariah loved his people. That much will become clear.

Don’t Blink

Suddenly—Surprise! An angel shows up at the altar, right in front of where he stands praying. Angels terrify those who see them. Sweet, lovely, harp-strumming angels do not exist in Scripture. Universally, they scare the heck out of people, and almost always they must first utter the words, ”Don’t be afraid” before they can say anything else to cowering, trembling humans.

 Zechariah was shaken and overwhelmed with fear when he saw him. But the angel said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John.’ (Luke 1.17-19)

Zechariah had questions. He doubted Gabriel’s word. This was a very bad idea.

Then the angel said, ‘I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.’ (v. 19-20)

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Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Zechariah ended up unable to speak as a result of his unbelief. Still, let’s not be too quick to judge him. The scripture also tells us, concerning him and his wife, “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” So no one can say he’s struck mute out of disobedience. God must have had other reasons.

He spends over nine months speechless. Let that sink in. I am a pastor myself, and I know what it would be like to carry out my daily work without being able to speak. I know how difficult it would be to care for people without being able to talk to them of their troubles. How does Zechariah manage?

One day, his one and only son is finally born—but the enforced silence is still not over.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, ‘No! His name is John!’ ‘What?’ they exclaimed. ‘There is no one in all your family by that name.’ So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, ‘His name is John.’

And he finds his voice.

What that voice says will be the subject of the next blog. Why it was silent for so long is my curiosity for this one. Why would God silence a man he himself calls good? Why is Zechariah punished for questioning an angel while Mary appears to have been blessed for the same behavior?

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s punishment. I think it, too, is a blessing.

Perhaps this was God allowing Zechariah some time to listen.

(Some assume from the verse about the people making gestures that he is also deaf, but this is unlikely. Probably, they simple raise their eyebrows or gaped open-mouthed, arms outstretched, signifying that he had better intervene immediately, speechless or not, because his wife is about to do something unheard of! In any case, ten months of observing the world, unable to speak or hear, would be no bad thing, either.)

Listen

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Can you imagine all that Zechariah learned during that ten months or so? What did he hear? What that he had never noticed before did he suddenly find fascinating? What people to whom he had never really paid attention did he finally truly hear? What did he learn from them?

Did he come to deeply appreciate the squealing laughter of children playing by the road, the passionate prayers of his friends, or the tender, quiet voice of his wife at night? Did he learn from the disenfranchised who rarely were able to catch the ear of a priest, but whose calls and cries he suddenly began to heed?

Did he open his eyes to people with whom he didn’t agree, since he had no choice but to listen and not immediately argue back?

Could an awful lot of us use that enforced silence?

He is a good man—that much has been established. Yet he has lessons to learn. For us, this is a hard but beautiful pill to swallow.

God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be

Maybe, God doesn’t punish us for being bad people as much as sometimes, he pushes us to be better people than we would otherwise bother to be.

Zechariah has lessons to learn, even though by all counts be is plenty good enough already.

I do, too.

  • Sometimes it’s when we’re good already.
  • When we’re smart.
  • When we’ve followed a while and know the ways of Jesus.
  • When we’re pretty sure we’ve got this God thing down.

Sometimes it’s then that we trip up.We believe in ourselves more than in Him.

It’s then we find ourselves on a detour out somewhere, unable to speak or really listen, because we thought we could navigate it alone.

One thing we learn from Zechariah is that we must never believe so much in our own goodness, right intentions, best plans, or knowledge of truth that we aren’t teachable.

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What might we learn if we listen?

  • If we closed our mouths, cut off the quick reply.
  • Stopped thinking about what we were going to say.
  • Refused the defensive comeback.
  • Chose to hear what someone we don’t agree with feels.

What would we hear and learn?

I’m so fascinated by Zechariah’s silence that I’ve decided my word for 2020—Listen. I want to experience what this man had no choice but to do. I want to know the depths of other people’s hearts, and of God’s. I want to learn. If Zechariah at his age still had much to learn, certainly so do I.

Everybody, Always: A Litany on Bob Goff’s New Book

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You may have noticed, if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, that I have opinions. Opinions about a lot of things. Many of them could be classified as “political,” although I prefer to classify them as following Jesus. I believe them to be well researched, thought out opinions.

Opinions and Other People

But the stunning surprise every time for me is—not everyone agrees with me. I don’t even know what to do with that. Shouldn’t everyone see things the way I do?

Not only is that divergence disturbing to me, but it has brought out parts of me that could not be classified as following Jesus. Anger. I do know that not all anger is wrong—anger over injustice is not wrong at all. How many of us, though, stray away from anger over injustice toward anger at people, rather than problems? (Insert raised hand here.)

Frustration. Doubt. Mostly, lack of genuine love for sisters and brothers who are completely on the other side of the issue. I devoutly believe they are wrong—but lack of love is not following Jesus. I don’t like that. Fix it, Jesus.

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Enter Everybody Always

That’s why I wanted to be on the launch team for Bob Goff’s new book, highly anticipated after a couple year’s hiatus from Love Does. He promised that he would tell me how to love Everybody, Always. The subtitle said it all: Becoming Love in a World of Setbacks and Difficult People. I needed that book.

Fortunately, I made it on the team and got to pre-read the first part of the book. When it came out in April, I ordered the whole thing on my iPad, because I needed the rest of the story–now, not in two day Amazon prime shipping. So here is your reason to get the book—if you haven’t already.

I wanted to preview this book because Bob raises the question I am struggling with—how do we really love people who try their hardest to be unlovable in today’s political and religious climate? Bob manages to open eyes to not only how we do that but, of course, how we sometimes are those unlovable people to someone else. His striking humility and hands-on personal testimony about how this works are enough to sell his authority.

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Resisting the Offer

One of my favorite quotes right off was: “I’m trying to resist the bait that darkness offers me every day to trade kindness for rightness.” Knowing it’s many of our struggle, not just mine, was a great start. It’s a daily thing, not a one and done. We have to resist that bait every single day it’s offered. And believe me, it’s offered a lot. Every time we turn on social media. To realize that it’s darkness trying to get me to click, swallow, and react helps make the right choice.

It doesn’t mean I have warm, bubbly feelings for everyone whose posts make me cringe and scream quietly into my Earl Grey. It does mean that sometimes the better part of love is to scroll past them, know what’s being offered, and refuse to take it. Say a prayer for the person and move on. Nothing to see here. Nothing to trade my peace and kindness in for. The people aren’t dark, but the temptation is.

A few of my favorite sections:

What I’ve been doing with my faith is this: instead of saying I’m going to believe in Jesus for my whole life, I’ve been trying to actually obey Jesus for thirty seconds at a time. Here’s how it works: When I meet someone who is hard to get along with, I think, Can I love that person for the next thirty seconds? them. I try to love the person in front of me the way Jesus did for the next thirty seconds rather than merely agree with Jesus and avoid them entirely, which I’m sad to say comes easier to me. I try to see difficult people in front of me for who they could become someday, and I keep reminding myself about this possibility for thirty seconds at a time. It’s easy to agree with what Jesus said. What’s hard is actually doing what Jesus did.

Right???

I love this. What can’t we do for thirty seconds? If we love for thirty seconds, I suspect it gets easier to love for thirty more, because for at least that much time, we’ve listened, heard, and looked at someone with new eyes. It’s hard to go back to anger and hate and dissension after we choose to love for thirty seconds.

Whether we want to or not, we end up memorizing what we do repeatedly. It’s the way we were wired from the factory. Because this is how we’re made, it’s a great idea to pick actions worth repeating. People who are turning into love do this. They adopt beautiful patterns and surrounding imagery for their lives. They fill their lives with songs, practices, and habits that communicate love, acceptance, grace, generosity, whimsy, and forgiveness. People who are becoming love repeat these actions so often they don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore. It’s just finger memory to them. They don’t need anyone to clap for them. They don’t need validation for things they know are inherently right and true and beautiful. They don’t need all the accolades that come with recognition. They also don’t feel a need to criticize people who have gotten a couple of things wrong or hit a couple of sour chords in their lives.

I want this. I want to practice grace. All the time. Until it’s the song that flows from my heart, fingers, and mouth every moment. Thirty seconds at a time.

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OK, this might be my very favorite quote. 🙂

Each day I start with the things I’m certain about and try to land my weight on those things. It always starts with a loving, caring God who is tremendously interested in me and the world I live in. I’m picky about what else I add after that.

That sounds like fantastic advice to me. It sounds like Jesus advice. What do we continually add to the basic facts that God loves me, God loves all the other people as much as me, and he cares what we do with it all? I want to land my weight on what matters and know that it’s going to hold. All the requirements we add are what makes us bounce off the runway, overweight and unbalanced. I want to travel light with what matters as my baggage, pilot, and landing gear.

There’s much more, told in his storytelling style that makes you want to go out and do half of what he does. (Except the skydiving part. I still have zero desire to skydive.)

I’m not sure how this introvert will manage to be such an active inspiration in peoples’ ives as he is, but at least I know how to start. Thirty seconds at a time.

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