Faith. Not Fear.

“It started out as a simple idea,” said my friend and colleague, the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham, priest of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville, GA. “The idea is this…What if Christians started a Nativity Movement?”

Movements always start with a good question, but what exactly is The Nativity Movement? It’s very simple. When Christians display their nativity scenes, they take a picture, and post it to social media under #NativityMovement. Why is this simple act considered a movement?

Those who participate in the #NativityMovement are recalling the fact that a tyrant named Herod instigated fear in his people by committing murder and infanticide throughout Bethlehem. This was the reason why Joseph, Mary, and Jesus became refugees, crossed the border into Egypt, and stayed there until Herod ruled no longer. The #NativityMovement also recalls Christianity’s meager beginnings. Jesus was not born in a palace, home, or even a hotel. He was not born with any privilege or power. His parents could have been considered disgraceful because Mary was having a child out of wedlock, and Joseph had originally wanted to dismiss her quietly.

For Christians, having these facts on our minds while setting up our nativity scenes can be an exercise in prayer: A prayer for every refugee family who seeks peace in another country, instead of persecution. A prayer for every baby delivered out of wedlock, or in unstable conditions. A prayer for every father who has considered leaving.

I’ve found, when I take the time to pray in this way, touching the figures and figurines from the nativity set, I am touching Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, as well as the created order such as the stars, the animals, and boxes of frankincense and myrrh. But on my deeply prayerful days, I am not only touching Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but also all the men, women, and children that they represent. And on my deeper than deepest prayer days, or even when I’m singing, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,” I must ask myself if I am truly being a good neighbor to my brothers and sisters in the world whose stories are very similar to this holy family’s?

Our faith is deepened when it is lived out of love instead of fear. The simple act of putting out our nativity scenes in the compassionate way I just described is one way of setting our hearts and minds on peace, love, and joy – those eternal virtues of this time of year. Happy Advent and Merry Christmas to all. May your #NativityMovement be a movement within your body, mind, and spirit during this sacred season.

Growing in the Faith: The Wisdom of Psalm 146

I sometimes wonder who wrote the individual Psalms that make up The Psalter in our Bibles and prayer books? Who were these people? What were their lives like? What compelled them to write down such intimate things? Tradition has the writer of the Psalms as David, but scholars have sense proven that quaint thought wrong. And good riddance, I say. Why give all the credit to just one man? For the light-hearted, or at least the poetically minded, scholars tend to burst our bubbles with objective fact, reason, and natural sensibilities. Existential worlds are turned upside when it is discovered that George Washington didn’t actually chop down a cherry tree, William Shakespeare might not have written all those brilliant plays, or that there’s actually two versions of The Ten Commandments. So, why do I say, good riddance to a child-like faith while still finding nostalgic value in the stories of our world? I say good riddance because I want to integrate my faith: the deep with the shallow, the hope with the despair, my inner soul with the souls of my feet stepping out on faith and tiptoeing into the light.

The writer of Psalm 146 does this for me. I imagine him to be a man who started out with a child-like faith: Praising the Lord, but categorizing praise and holding it captive to just one designated place – quite possibly the Temple. As he grew in his faith, he not only wrote, “Praise the Lord,” but “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” Now we’re talking. He started to integrate praise, thanksgiving, and devotion to places both within and outside himself where God was made known to him…not exclusively in Temple, but quite possibly in a lover’s eyes, or maybe the smile of a stranger, or the warming touch of a friend who had always shone him dignity.

The author’s been around the block a time or two because he warns us, “Don’t put your trust in princes…there’s no help there. Their policies and procedures will die away with them.” Instead, he says, “Why not put your trust in the one who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them…who keeps faith forever?” This writer’s faith journey is mapped out right before our eyes, and many on the journey tend to stop here. They stop with the awesome awareness that the God they serve, (The God of Jacob for our writer), is the very God who created the cosmos. It’s enough (for some) to look out over nature, see the awesomeness of it…the beauty of it, and to attribute the whole of it to a creator God, and that’s okay. We all have our moments, and those are certainly good and grand moments when we think back on them. But look what happens on this writer’s journey. He doesn’t stop there. His faith continues, and God is not only found in himself; God is not only found in the Temple; God is not only found in nature, but God is found every time justice is served, and every time food is given to the hungry. The Lord (our author says) sets the prisoners free, opens eyes, lifts up, loves, watches over folks, and upholds the outcasts. The Lord is in both the macro and the micro-cosms of our lives, so much so that when we look out over the ocean and feel the presence of God, this same spiritual presence can also be found in human touch, in bread and wine, in musical expression, and in all the nooks and crannies of our lives; as well as in the lives of the stranger, the neighbor, and the other.

For Christians the ultimate faith turned into action came in the form of a person – Jesus Christ, who we call God because his life was lived by doing exactly what the Psalmist says God always does: “executes justice, feeds the hungry, sets prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind, and upholds the orphan and the widow.” For Jesus, there was no categorizing and cataloging faith. Faith was one movement: Integrating the body with the soul while experiencing the Spirit moving through it all. This too is our calling: To integrate God’s Spirit into every facet of our lives so much so that one prays and praises God without ceasing. Every act is an act in love because we are simply responding to God’s eternal love towards us.

The Psalmist reminds us that there’s always an open invitation to take our faith deeper, to go beyond the beauty. In fact, seeing God in the beautiful things in life is quite easy. It’s when we can see God in the mundane that we really start to experience God in a different way, in an integrated way, in a way that the Psalmist was able to express and invites us to do the same, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”