10th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

The LORD is my shepherd… (Psalm 23:1)

It is comforting to remember Christ the Good Shepherd; but have you ever stopped to think what it means to be his sheep? Sheep are disobedient, and unruly animals. Sheep are smelly and dirty, and they are not the cute animals that they appear to be. Sheep are often very human. But it is these creatures that need a shepherd. If sheep were clean and well disciplined, then they would not need a shepherd to look out for them and guide them. Humans are like sheep, and we need a shepherd.

The danger comes often when we are so eager to follow, that we will follow anybody. When people feel marginalized, depressed, and afraid they will grasp at any straw, they will follow any shepherd. In prison, when men are at their lowest, I have seen them embrace anything and everything. We have groups in prison that try to cling all kinds of sects, schisms, cults, and other faiths. It is not always enough to know you are lost. But Christ is real, Christ that has the power to come to us and search us out.

We come to know Christ most truly, and most deeply, when we are lost. We learn about God’s Love when we allow God to love us when we feel unlovable. I wish there was an easier way to learn to trust God, but for many of us it had to be a rocky road to redemption. We all, like sheep, have gone astray. But it is Christ who has sought us out and brought us home.

I have never been so far from everything I love. When the world is difficult for us, God uses those times to love us more intensely, and to sustain and protect us.

It came upon a midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold; “Peace on earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all gracious King.” (Hymn 89)

9th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23:6)

There is no one without sin, says Paul, no one who is righteous. And I don’t know of a church where that is more clear than on any given Sunday night here in prison. If there was a gift that comes from prison faith, it is that it is grounded in the sure knowledge of our total unworthiness, and the sure knowledge of God’s loving graciousness.

I received a letter from a friend who lives in Texas yesterday. An ex-con herself, she and her husband work full-time and also minister to over 75 inmates around the country as part of the motorcycle ministry that they ride with. She is a woman devoted to God and ministry, and in her letter she thanked me for being such a blessing to her. Talk like that makes me uncomfortable.

If I were a man who thought myself righteous I could pat myself on the back and say “Of course, after all – don’t you know who I am?!” But the problem is that I do know exactly who I am. I live with me. I know all of my failings, my thoughts, my regrets, my wrongs, my sins. I am very unrighteous. And yet I trust my sister when she is telling me that she has been blessed through our friendship as much as I am.

To that there is only one response. If it isn’t me, and she would deny it is her, then it must be God. My only response can then become: “Of course, after all – don’t you know who God Is?!”

God chooses us, God loves us. God doesn’t just bless us, God uses us to bless others. I am not righteous, but God is. Praise be to God.

Sing, O sing, this blessed morn, unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, God himself comes down from heaven. Sing O sing, this blessed morn, Jesus Christ today is born. (Hymn 88)

8th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

He said, “I am the LORD who heals you.”(Exodus 15:26)

Healing is a difficult subject for every Christian. We know that all of creation is God’s, and we know that it is fallen away from God. I do not believe the sickness of our lives is God’s intention, but I do believe that God allows it for a purpose – and we don’t always know what that purpose is. We pray for the healing that Christ brings, and we mourn and struggle when we do not see it come as we hope and expect.

I lost a friend to cancer one Christmas. Even on his death bed the prison would not parole him so he could go and die at home. Instead he died in the prison infirmary, after having spent over half his life behind bars. We prayed for his healing, and he did not get better. We prayed for his release, and he was not released.

But during his struggles with his sickness he finally faced some deep questions and struggles he had with God. He began to address again the serious issues of forgiveness and reconciliation. He was here in prison, but he was very much loved and prayed for from the inside and outside community. A lapsed Catholic, he returned to the church and frequently celebrated the sacraments with the community.

Bubba died, and before he died he was healed.

Yea, Lord we greet thee, born this happy morning; Jesus to thee be glory given; Word of Father, now in flesh appearing; O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord. (Hymn 83)

7th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

Then Gideon built an altar there to the LORD, and called it, The LORD is peace. (Judges 6:24)

During this holiday season the word ‘peace’ is always before us. It decorates our Christmas cards, our homes, our clothes, and graces our lips. But even though we say it, do we really live it? Do we understand it? Can we?

Peace, by the worlds standard, is simply the lack of violence. That is a good and noble thing, but the peace of the Lord is much deeper and fuller than this. Jesus called it the peace that ‘passeth understanding,’ that is exactly what he meant. To say, even for a moment ‘oh, I get it,’ is to contradict Christ. No, we don’t ‘get it,’ we don’t understand it, but we can receive it, we can experience it, and by the grace of God we can live in it.

The peace that God gives is a deep restfulness, despite whatever else is going on, because the very depths of your soul is rooted and grounded in the love God has for you. It is a peace that cannot be bought, and cannot be sought; it is a peace that comes to us as a gift, and only as a gift. It can only be received. It is a peace that speaks quietly to us and calms us in the middle of the storm. It is a quiet calm that tells us to trust, not to fear, not to worry, and to rest in God’s hand. It is a peace that God gives to creation, and it is the present that Christ brought to us in his birth.

It is a peace that comes from knowing every moment is sacred unto God. It is a peace that comes from knowing that God pays little heed to prison fences, bars, or walls, but is always present with us. It is the peace that permeates every moment of our lives, and call us back to God.

It is this peace that I wish for you this day.

O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem; come, and behold Him, born the King of Angels; O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore Him, Christ, The Lord. (Hymn 83)

2nd Sunday of Christmas/Epiphany Sunday

by CM

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

Our Savior entered the world as a solution to a problem that a significant portion of the people in power didn’t even realize existed. Those who has the scriptures, those in positions in the government, those with the resources and the means to solve the problem never deployed them because they were blind to it.

Here comes Jesus, born King yet He carried a mandate from on high to bring a solution to a problem that was so prevalent that the powers that be sought to slay Him even as a baby. Why? Because His life was meant to expose those in authority, those in power, as the source of the problem.

Our reading identifies a number of issues: lack of justice and disenfranchisement of the poor, oppression, hopelessness, cruelty. These conditions are all results of sin. However, they lack the abstract notions of what constitutes one’s individual nature and squarely categorize the issues involved in the way the powerful treat the common man. It was the state that took issue with the life of Jesus, the religious folk who pledged loyalty to the state, “We have no king but Caesar.” Why? Because they couldn’t see THEMSELVES as the problem.

Being that those same problems still exist and persist, what are we not seeing today in relation to their presence? Jesus exposed the systematic injustice, unrighteousness, corruption, cruelty and evil in the simplicity of the fact that they killed him! Sometimes people have a tendency to gloss over that fact.

What does it say—right where the rubber meets the road—about ANYONE, ANY SYSTEM, that kills a person? Let that word sink in for a moment. A PERSON such as Jesus. Not, “Son of God,” not “The Christ.” We have to ask the question, was Mary’s baby boy a bad PERSON? Because make no mistake about it, in a very NON-ABSTRACT way, that is who they—the powerful, the ruling class, the government—killed. And unless he was at the very least a bad person, they killed him wrongfully.

Are we “divorced” from seeing the same today? Have we forgotten that Jesus said something about how the way we treat “the least of these” equals how we treat Jesus? If we take issue with seeing Jesus as simply being a Person, it may indicate a lack of the ability to see the downtrodden as Jesus.

 

6th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

And Moses built an altar and called it, The LORD is my banner. (Exodus 17:15)

There are many battles that we fight as believers, and to hear God named as the ‘Battle Fighter’ is a powerful reassurance about what is truly going on. In this passage the Lord fights as Moses lifts his hands in praise, and when his arms grow weary it is his brothers who help hold them up.

The Christian community is a source of our strength and guidance, but it can often be the place of our battles as well. Some of the most hurtful and bitter battles that rage are the ones that tear us apart in our faith community. The Christian body can easily become divided over issues that work to pit us against each other, and tear at the fabric of our family of faith.

It is not wrong to fight and struggle for the truth of God to be known, recognized, and lived, but truth by itself becomes an empty law unto itself. A crusade of truth without love has given us little except a ‘Christian fundamentalist’ movement, just as the crusade of love without truth puts us on the edge of a dangerous liberalism. We cannot have one without the other. We cannot fight for anything if it is not the truth of God, but the only weapon that God has given us for the battle is love itself.

I am in prison, and my battles are many. They are battles of honesty, integrity, and faithful service. Battles of the spirit, heart, and mind. And for those on the outside the battles are the same. They are battles that are won by relying on our relationship with the Lord. They are battles where we can only stand in faith and let the Lord fight for us. And when the times are tough and we grow tired, there are times when we rely on the strength of our brothers and sisters to hold us up.

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source and ending He. (Hymn 82)

5th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

So Abraham called that place ‘The LORD will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’ (Genesis 22:14)

This name of God is beloved of mine because it is not just a testimony, it is also a powerful reassurance. It is a reminder that God has provided for me in so very many ways, and that God will provide for me in anything that comes.

In my life I have always longed for family. I have always wanted to feel needed and necessary, valued and loved, as part of a loving community. But I have only a very small family, and it has long been fractured and broken. At this point in my life almost all of what little family I have left has abandoned me. But in that seeming loss, God has provided for me abundantly.

If I were to count all those people in my life now that I love and value, that I count as family, I would quickly run out of all of my fingers and toes, and most of yours as well! These people may not be considered part of my traditional family, but they are certainly part of my intentional family.

This intentional family does not come easily. It does not come without decisions and actions. We have to decide not just to be totally open to someone else, but we also have to love that person when they are totally open to us and we are subject to all of their secrets and foibles. Being a part of a loving family can be work, but it is wonderful work. It is work that allows us to overcome all of our separations and anxieties, and be accepted. A family allows us to be the most fully ourselves that we can be, and be accepted.

I do not know what the future of my life will bring, I have only plans, hopes, and dreams, but I know whom it is that I follow, and I know God will provide.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing. (Hymn 100)

4th Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

But David said to the Philistine, ‘You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts…” 1st Samuel 17:45

The Lord who is “God of all the Hosts,” and “God of all the armies,” is surely a God of getting things done. This is not the quiet God who is preaching on a hillside to fisherman, this is the God who is out conquering new lands and subduing other peoples. I like this God.

I like this God because I am a guy who likes to get things done. I like to make to-do lists and I love to cross things off of them. I love to always feel like I am accomplishing something. I feel an almost manic need to always be accomplishing something in prison, or I feel that I am simply wasting my time and my life. If I am not busy I begin to almost frantically fill the time with something. I cannot seem to even sit to watch the television without also trying to read a book and eat a meal at the same time. I used come to work and often found myself frustrated with the men who would stop by because they were preventing me from getting my work done. It was a humbling day when I was reminded in prayer that these men were my work.

When the Bible introduces us to Mary and Martha we are challenged to compare those who are always doing for the Lord, and those who are simply being. It is easy to sit back and ask ourselves which one are we. I, for one, am much more comfortable as a ‘Martha’, but God calls Mary the better choice.

In prison I have often found myself forced into inaction. I have been literally bound up and alone for long periods of time. These turned out not to be the empty times that I needed to fill, they became opportunities for God to fill me. The world needs both ‘Marys’ and ‘Marthas’ but it is only when we are quiet and ready to receive God, that we can be doing for God.

Angels we have heard on high, singing sweetly through the night, and the mountains in reply echoing their brave delight.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo. Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Hymn 96)

“Time-Released Details” (1st Sunday after Christmas)

1st Sunday after Christmas Day – December 27

1st Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17

“Time-Released Details”

by CM

A parallel between the Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading is that we’re observing a moment of boyhood in the lives of two individuals who are intrinsically linked across the span of many generations: Samuel and Jesus. One eternally occupies the Throne of David as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, our Savior Jesus; while it was Samuel who became the man that inaugurated the line of Israel’s royalty and anointed its first two kings.

We also see the hearts of two mothers—Hannah and Mary—women who have prayed, dedicated their lives to faithfully carrying out the requirements of the law as a result of their devotion to God, and two women who have divine insight into the destiny of their special boys, even if they lacked the details. And it’s in the lack of details that the real value of the faith journey is revealed.

These mothers, looking at their boys, both of them products of God’s word to them in “time release” form. Who can say with certainty what the details of a boy’s manhood will look like? Yet, as is pointed out—in 1st Samuel 2:26, in relation to Samuel and Hannah; and in Luke 2:52, in relation to May and Jesus—both moms watched their boys grown in stature and in favor with God and men as they transitioned from boyhood to manhood.

So I ask you now, what has been produced in your life pursuant to your relationship with God which unites you in your experience of that production with Hannah and Mary? What has God brought into your life on a “time release” basis? Something that requires a period of maturation?

In what ways may you yourself be that time-released gift to humanity from on high? In what ways have you ever considered that the promise and purpose of your own life may be directly linked to the life of another across the span of generations?

It is this consideration that brings forth the sacred in your life. Embrace this truth and sanctify this reality by doing all things, be they in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, as is pointed out in our epistle reading, Colossians 3:17.

You can imagine, coming from the perspective of an incarcerated man, scriptures that highlight transitions across the passage of time—“time-release” workings of the hand of God—are particularly encouraging. May the areas in your life that require a period of maturation be seen in new light, and as our two mothers in these readings, keep these things in your heart and be encouraged too.

3rd Day of Christmas

by Matthew B. Harper

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… (John 1:1-3)

When we talk about God as the creator we are immediately immersed in controversies concerning scientific or biblical-literalist creation, but the true focus should be the one that we all know personally – the eternally creating God that is creating all of us anew every moment of every day.

Often we approach our faith as if it were a puzzle that must be solved. We tackle each issue in the Bible or catechism as something that we must memorize and draw a little box around it. Then we can go through life and feel empowered when we define and denounce anybody who has even a slightly different truth in their little box. This may do wonders for our rhetorical skills, but it will do little for our faith.

There is much to be said for defining and defending the absolute truth of our Christian faith, but it is something that must be approached with humility, and not manipulated in arrogance to judge others. All too often I have seen my Christian family, in and out of prison, rent asunder by such controversy. All too often I have seen people turn away in disgust from our church, not from God but turning away from the Church.

When I, human that I am, look to the infinite God I do not pretend that I can understand all of it. And if I have even the smallest understanding, I am not sure that I could ever communicate it in words. The whole world is awash with the constantly unfolding puzzle of the Glory of God. I live in it, I love in it, I believe in it, but any attempts to define and dissect it somehow always lessen it.

However you understand creation, live always in the power of the one who is constantly and eternally creating.

Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine; love was born at Christmas: star and angels gave the sign. (Hymn 84)