“Stay Close”
Matthew 1:18-22, Excerpt from “Generous Orthodoxy” by Brian D. McClaren
By Rev. Don Ludwig, December 8, 2019


I remember the first time when I was about 4 or 5 years old when I walked unannounced through the closed door of my parents’ bedroom and something other than sleeping was going on.  As a 4-year-old child, I was often very curious about what adults do and say.  My Dad used to preach to us kids about hard work.  Whether we were helping him paint a house, do chores for Mom, haul the yard debris—he’d offer “pearls of wisdom”—whether welcomed by us or not.  He’d told me once, “Don, my back’s been up against the wall many times, but God always makes a way out at just the right moment.”  It is the code by which he lived his life.  His back had seen the wall many times—through financial instability, physical ailment, family stress, divorce and separation, and addiction to alcohol.  But he was determined to never be crushed by it.  He seemed to will his way out through each of those times.

I was thinking about how his spirit matched his words when I went home for a visit, not long into my Seminary days.  My parents have never had a lot of money, so I’ve always worried about their financial well-being.  And so there I sat riding in the car with my father the retired railroad car-man, and I asked him, “How are you doing?”  He knew what I meant.  It wasn’t a question about physical health; although he had a recent heart attack.  Before he answered, I could see in his eyes that the demands of life had backed him up against the wall.  And when he didn’t answer, I did.  I said, “Seems like sometimes it never ends, doesn’t it?”  And then he said something I’d never expect him to say.  He said, “Well I think God never intended for some people to have much of anything in this life, except each other.”

And then he smiled and went on silently about his driving.  And while he drove, I remembered.  I remembered walking unannounced in the bedroom that time when I was 5 years old.  And there I saw them, the two of them, mom and dad, jubilant with excitement; they had just discovered that they were going to have a baby boy.  They were making plans.  I was going to be a big brother!

The reason the walls that break many men never broke my father is that he had my mother; he had his family; and by clinging to the hope in each other, he would never be overwhelmed by the powers that sought to overwhelm him.  For him, God was found in us – his family — we were his back!

Back Against the Wall

The story about Joseph today is about a man—an average Joe—who found himself in a difficult position with which he felt his “back up against the wall.”  The biblical accounts in Matthew and Luke are sketchy about what the exact scenario was for Mary—whether the child was out of wedlock, whether they had married yet or not…nevertheless, we find Joseph caught in a dilemma…and struggling to do the right thing.   What was the right thing to do?  Matthew says that he did not want publicly disgrace Mary – he wanted to break up quietly – today, he may have wanted to just send a text message.    But if I have learned anything from my wife Kathy, it is that a man’s first response is never the best response!  Or is that just me, men?

Only after Joseph thought about it for a while – the bible says that he was visited by an angel –  do we learn about his extraordinary commitment—from an ordinary man—to do the right thing even when the going was tough – even though it would risk his reputation.  Joe the Carpenter knew that his strength was in his family.  Joe knew the importance of staying close to family.

Staying Close

The response from Joseph was as much irrational as it was rational.  Last week I went to the youth office before worship and 4 high school girls cornered me and said: “Say it isn’t so.”  I was a bit baffled”.  And then they said, “you are leaving us to become a pastor”.   And then one girl, chimed in, “but we understand that you have to help make the church right”.

I have been blessed to have worked with youth my entire adult life – and our youth today are as incredible as any group I have worked with before.  They have kept me young and vibrant – they challenge me to keep current – they give me hope in our sometimes boring and complacent adult world.  I told them: First, I am not leaving you to become a pastor, I am a pastor.  And second, I’m not going anywhere – yes, my new temporary office is down the hallway and I am switching roles – but I will always stay close to the youth program as long as they stay close to the church.  I will show up at youth events and look forward to co-leading the Puerto Rico Mission Trip.

I suspect that Joe the carpenter somehow knew that as long as he stayed close to Mary, everything would work out – the same way I know that my strength and confidence and perseverance are largely the result of staying close to Kathy.  She is an amazing woman and mother and professional in her own right.  She is my strength!  Joseph found his strength by staying close to Mary.  He was largely in the dark, as many men can be, but he was determined to be guided by hope and trust…that God had a plan for his situation – it was not readily known; not rational; not even possible.  Except by faith!

Three Cups of Tea

Over the past week, I have been consolidating my books from my three offices and moving the more theological ones to my new temporary office.  I can across a gem of a book that came out about 10 years ago.  For those of you who have not read the book, Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace – One School at a Time, it tells the true tale of a young mountain climber who pledged to build a school in the mountainous regions of northern Pakistan.  Along the way, he discovers the beauty and poverty of the region; the desperate need for schools; and his own personal journey of cultural awareness, compassion, and humanitarianism through the goodness of others.  In this excerpt, Mortenson tells of the wisdom he received from Haji Ali, a tribal leader in the village.

“When the porcelain bowls of scalding butter tea steamed in their hands, Haji Ali spoke.  ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways,’ Haji Ali said, blowing on his bowl.  ‘the first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest.  The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,’ he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own.  ‘Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated.  But we are not stupid.  We have lived and survived here for a long time.

‘That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life,’ Mortensen says.  ‘We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly.  We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills.  Our leaders thought their ‘shock and awe’ campaign could end the war in Iraq before it even started.  Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.  He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.’”

Greg Mortensen endured times when his back was against the wall and when faith was all he had that the projects and funding would come through.  The vision and dream of completing the school—and his promise to the villagers—drove his energy and fueled his motivation.  It gave him the long-term goal he needed to get through the short-term challenges.

This is the image I have of Joe the Carpenter—a soon-to-be father who struggled yet believed—in a simple dream.  For Joseph, it was the dream of being a godly husband and father to his family…and a faithful servant of God.  Little did he know, that dream would manifest in a much larger reality.  Marcus Borg writes, Joe would soon learn that “God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth.”

I suspect that Joe was oblivious to the drama unfolding around him.  I am reminded of a tale.  Jemima was taking an afternoon nap on Christmas Eve just before the festivities.  After she woke up, she confided to Max, her husband, “I just dreamed that you gave me a diamond ring for Christmas.  What do you think it means?  “Aha, you’ll know tomorrow morning, answered Max with a grin.  At the break of dawn, when the family gathered around the tree to open presents, Max handed Jemima her small package.  Delighted and excited, she opened it up quickly.  There in her hand rested a book entitled:  “The meaning of dreams.”

Taking Risks

My father, as many men are, clueless to the importance of gestures, loved to take risks.  I suspect Joe the Carpenter did, too  When I think about what it means to for us to be soldiers engaged in the causes of struggling people—taking risks for a dream to be realized, I think about my years as a basketball player.  Until my stroke, I played often and was on many teams.  I made Varsity one year in high school, but the next year I was cut because I was too short.

My biggest regret…..Or so I thought at the time.  Looking back, it was probably because I didn’t shoot much.  You see, I was hesitant and timid to shoot the ball.  I love to pass and most often was the quickest player on the court.  But I did not want to shoot the ball.  I didn’t like taking risks on the court.  I worried about the embarrassment of missing a shot…or getting the dreaded air-ball.  My dad would tell me, “You need to shoot more!”  Deep down inside, I knew it, too.  I wanted to – but I didn’t.  Now…if I have any regrets in life, it is that I should have shot the ball more!   Now, I have a son who loves to shoot – his coach says – he shoots too much and needs a bit more game discipline.  I guess life is always about balance, isn’t it?

I think Joe the Carpenter—like Haji Ali, the tribal leader—would surmise that many of us shy away from taking risks and have our priorities all wrong.  “There’s a game going on guys” they might say, looking at God’s people on the basketball court of injustice, loss, financial crisis, oppression, addiction, loneliness, and fear…worrying about what can be done.  They would say, “For God’s sake, get in the game! Stop worrying about the embarrassment if you can’t do everything right, the world doesn’t need you to do everything right, it needs you to do what you can do to make it right.” Marcus Borg reminds us, “God will not change us as individuals without our participation, and God will not change the world without our participation.”

I believe that today, given the massive problems that we all face, given the insurmountable odds that loom before us, given our transition as a church, we must not be hesitant or timid.  We need strong people—fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters—to put our priorities in check and be willing to participate in whatever is needed to change the conditions of our world.  That’s one of the greatest lessons from Joseph in this story.  He focused on his priority despite the risk…made it his dream…and when his back was against the wall…he clung to his faith and family.  He didn’t waste time worrying about what others would think; he didn’t bemoan the condition he was in; he didn’t abandon Mary.  Instead, he simply did the right thing today and let tomorrow take care of itself.  He trusted.

Stay Close to Family

If then, this scripture story does indeed have a message, a calling even, for us— it is a calling to stay close to family and each other – when our backs are against the wall – knowing that together we can face any challenge.  It is the calling to stay close to each other by staying close to our faith and our dreams and to never lose hope.  It is a calling to get in the game – to participate in God’s dream for our world and our church – and to take risks.

Like the people of Balti teach us, at first we may be strangers…but in time we become family. And for family, we are willing to risk everything.