A God Who Keeps It Real

23Dec

There is so much that goes on in the Christmas story, it’s easy to miss the parts of it that are pieces of our real lives.

My guess is that most of us haven’t been visited by an angel, even in our dreams. We don’t put daily credence in prophecy, even fulfilled prophecy. We certainly would raise an eyebrow if a pregnant daughter or granddaughter or sister or friend said an angel of the Lord visited her and her pregnancy was the result. These extraordinary elements of the story often outshine the underlying heartache and uncertainty of Joseph and Mary.

Matthew’s account tells us that Mary and Jospeh are engaged. As with many cultures even today, Mary and Joseph’s engagement or betrothal was not a romantic undertaking. It was a business-like arrangement with a binding contract. Most likely, Mary did not have much, if any, say in her choice of prospective husband. She may not have even known very much about him. He was probably quite a bit older with his own expectations of what he wanted in a wife.

No doubt, an already pregnant girl was not part of his expectations! This inconvenient reality put a major crimp in all of his plans. We know he was torn about how to deal with Mary. We know he cared enough about Mary that he didn’t want to shame her, but it did take some celestial influence to help him come to the decision he ultimately made. Angels are always signs that some divine intervention is needed.

Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about what the families thought or the conversations that must have taken place. We can only surmise that Mary did not come through this experience unscathed either. She was also bound to the religious and cultural practices of her day. I’m sure she was scared and confused by all that was happening with herself. Now she caused great distress to her betrothed and how would he ever trust her? I think it’s safe to say that all the months leading up to the birth were not some joyous, baby shower extravaganza. I’m sure the usual fears and anxiety and flights of emotion that we all face with massive upheaval in our lives, were also experienced by Joseph and Mary, and those close to them.

And that is the point, isn’t it? We have all experienced similar upheavals. Maybe you’re trying to out-swim an undertow right now. Families with discord, couples who are disconnected, young adults who don’t see a future and older adults who don’t have much future left. Friends seeking jobs, co-workers worried about their visas, others seeking acceptance and a place to belong. It can be hard to admit struggling, wondering if your anguish is unfaithful, especially this time of year.

This part of the Christmas story – Mary and Joseph and the family tree – reminds us that God keeps it real. God did not choose a fairy-tale princess or a photo-shopped model to bear the savior. God chose an unwed peasant girl as his mother. God did not choose a business success story to name and care for Jesus. God chose a man with his own doubts and questions who also needed a little angelic guidance.

We celebrate Advent as a reminder that Emmanuel, God with us, is real. God keeps it real in the people and places through which God chooses to live and work and have being. God works in extraordinary ways through ordinary people like you and me. God is with us in our upheavals and celebrations. God is with us forever and ever. Amen.

The Family Tree

22Dec

Family trees are full of fascinating people with stories. Most of us come from humble stock, ordinary people with ordinary lives. The interesting stuff comes out in the stories that get passed from generation to generation. The stories reveal who was either noteworthy or notorious!

Jesus’ family tree was no different. He had noteworthy relatives and quite a few notorious ones! That should give all of us hope! It also reveals that God works with, in, and through anyone!

Jesus’ family tree is delineated in Matthew 1:1-17. Knowing your family tree was essential and was an important part of your identity. Of course, there are a few interesting tidbits in Jesus’ family tree.

We notice right off that Jesus’ roots go all the way back to Abraham. But not far into his line we come across a woman, quite unusual for the patriarchal culture. Not only is a woman mentioned, a notorious woman is highlighted! Tamar posed as a prostitute with the intent to seduce her father-in-law, which she did, bearing twins, Perez and Zerah. An auspicious start of the family tree suddenly becomes an intrigue.

Not too much further down the tree, and we come across another woman, Rahab. Rahab is not only a prostitute – a real prostitute, not a posing prostitute – but from an idolatrous people. She wasn’t even an Israelite! We also find Ruth, another foreigner.

When we reach the section of kings, we are first confronted with David. The famous, adulterous King David. David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. And then we come across a bunch of terrible, wicked kings.

Ahaz was irresolute and impressionable, easily succumbing to the religion and politics of the Assyrians. When in Damascus, swearing homage to the Assyrian king and his gods, he took a liking to the altar there and had one like it made in Jerusalem. This brought about a corresponding change in ritual, which he made a permanent feature of the Temple worship. Ahaz fitted up an astrological observatory with accompanying sacrifices, after the fashion of the ruling people. It’s also recorded that he offered up his son for fire sacrifice. You can find his riveting story in 2 Kings 16; Isaiah 7-9; and 2 Chronicles 28.

Manasseh was the son of the popular, righteous king, Hezekiah. He ruled the longest of any of the kings, 55 years, but reversed many of the reforms his father had made. He re-instituted polytheistic worship, the free adoption of foreign cults, and the bitter persecution of the prophetic party. Another notorious branch on the Jesus family tree.

While we learn some about the notorious and noteworthy people in Jesus’ family, we learn even more about God. God is gracious to everyone, even prostitutes and adulterers. God may have had a covenant relationship with the Israelites, but that did not preclude God from working with and through foreigners and strangers, aka immigrants! God uses unlikely people and unlikely circumstances to bring about God’s purposes. A God who is truly with us and for us.

God Is Entertained

21Dec

The last of our family left and it’s very quiet in our house. Family Christmas always gets celebrated during Advent and I always learn something new about God being really with us.

Our youngest granddaughter, who is six, was the only one really interested in playing with all of the nativity figures this year. She gradually moved most of them to a little, secret hideout behind the Christmas tree. For some reason, the kneeling wise man had to camp out on the fireplace hearth. Every night, before she went to bed, she’d lay him down. Sometimes he had a “pillow”. Most of the time he just roughed it on the brick.

She wasn’t too interested in the stars from the set either. She told me the lights on the Christmas tree were much better stars because there were so many of them. An angel ornament made its way around to the back of the tree. She had collected all of my Willow Tree angels already and positioned them around her play area. Occasionally one would “sit” up in the tree branches because “there were lots of angels hanging out in the sky.” She kept herself entertained for hours!

I think we keep God entertained for hours too. No doubt, we keep God busy because humanity is a mess. But we don’t really think of God being entertained by us. I can totally pictures God listening in on our conversations, the ones we have with ourselves and the one’s we have with others. Would God be amused or saddened? I can see God following us through our days. Would we invite God to join us or pretend God was invisible if we knew God was on the perimeter? Do we see lots of stars when we look at the heavens, or do we even look up? Are we aware there are lots of angels in the wings for us, or do we think we must go it alone?

Christmas is just a few days away. Christmas. Emmanuel. God coming to be with us. God coming to be with us just as we are, where we are, right now. God delights in being entertained by us … for hours and hours.

rustic nativity scene with stuffed toy

Family Christmas 2016

19Dec

I’m writing this as the last (and youngest) granddaughter makes her way to bed after our annual Peterson-Fouquet-Hokama Family Christmas. It’s only 11:00 PM, but Grandpa Sam and I are dead tired. Isn’t that the way all family Christmases go?

family christmas 2016

We are really blessed to have four generations gather. My octogenarian parents, my sister, my youngest son and daughter-in-law, and our three granddaughters all made the annual pilgrimage to our place. Even though we were recently all together here for Thanksgiving, enough life has happened that we don’t take anything for granted. We endeavor to honor the traditions we have created, and forged, and changed from generation to generation.

In a sense, each Family Christmas is an awakening to new possibilities. There’s something sacred in sharing meals, exchanging gifts, telling stories, listening, playing, and being together. We are transformed from our experience together. We are enriched and have something new to bring to the lives we go back to after being together. And we are reminded. God is with us. Emmanuel.

 

Believing the Dream

18Dec

Have you ever woken from a dream that felt so real you were disoriented when you awoke? And that sense of dreaming reality stayed with you for a long while afterward? I wonder if that’s how Joseph felt when he awoke from his dream when they angel came to him?

The story from the opening chapter from the gospel of Matthew is often referred to as Jesus’ birth narrative. It does have the Jesus’ lineage, which, by itself, is an interesting study in family history. It also has some of what we’ve come to expect in birth stories. It even has aspects about how Jesus’ birth took place. Although that’s all part of the narrative, I find there’s something else that captures the true heart of this narrative.

I am more fascinated by Joseph. I think this narrative is more about Jospeh awakening to new possibilities. I think it’s about his eyes being opened to possibilities beyond what is offered by women and men. I think it’s about solutions that are God-sent.

Matthew tells us Joseph was a righteous man, which meant he knew and lived by the tenets of his Jewish faith. But it also seems that he was a good, thoughtful, kind and honorable man.

When Joseph found out that the woman he was betrothed, but not yet married to, was pregnant, he knew he was not that father of her child. He assumed she was unfaithful. This put him in a quandary. Unfaithfulness in a marriage back then really had only one option. Adultery was an act that ended the a marriage and could be punishable by death. Legally, when Joseph found Mary to be with child, he could have asked that she be stoned to death, or at the very least, punished in some publicly humiliating way. That was often the way things were done. It was his right as a righteous Jewish man.

Jospeh was in a quandary because he didn’t want to publicly humiliate Mary and expose her to public disgrace. Matthew tells us, he planned to cope with the situation as compassionately as he could and send her away quietly.

Then, one night after he decides what he’s going to do, he has a a strange and amazing dream! In his dream, and angel of the Lord comes to him and tells him to stand by Mary and not abandon her.

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

As vivd and realistic as Joseph’s dream was, it was still a dream. What was so amazing about his dream is that it impacted him enough to let it influence him in his real life! Because of his dream, Joseph changed his mind about his decision. Because of his dream, he decided not to go through with his plan to end his relationship with Mary.

Joseph acted as if the dream wasn’t a dream. He didn’t just dismiss the message because it was a dream. No, he was awakened to a new way of acting. Instead of making choices out of honor or a cultural code, he chose to act out of faith. He acted out of his confident belief in the truth, trustworthiness, or value of what an angel told him in a dream.

We haven’t been counting down toward Christmas this Advent season because the birth of this baby Jesus is some dream or myth. Just as Joseph had his awakening story, we are also having our awakening story when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ into this world. It awakens us to possibilities beyond our own. It opens our eyes to what is possible with God. It is our chance to act as if this dream of God in the world, Emmanuel, is real—so real that it causes us to change our lives, move in a different direction, and transform the world into a place of peace, hope, faith, and love for all people.

We are in the final week of Advent. Let us awaken to the new reality to which it is leading us. And may we be bold enough to change our lives, move in a different direction and be a a part of transforming the world into a place of peace, hope, faith, and love … for all people.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

 

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

 

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”

 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. ~ Matthew 1:18-25

Seeing It All

17Dec

Week three of Advent has come to a close. It’s ironic that the closer we get to Christmas, the more stressful our lives become. We’ve been waiting and preparing and, now that the Big Event is almost here, we’re not prepared! (Of course, I say this and my family is due to arrive today for our family Christmas.)

And then I look at the world at large. I am astounded by the atrocities in Aleppo, Syria and Equatoria, South Sudan. Hate crimes are spiking across Europe and the US, and conflict continues to devastate civilians across the globe. Here in the United States we suffered through a demeaning, hate-filled, lies-instead-of-truth, politics of fear election. I see a quick sand administration loaded with pale, stale males. I see things I do not want to see, not only this time of year, but ever.

Seeing it all gives me the uh-oh feeling.

And then I remember it’s Advent. I remember to take a breath. I am reminded of John the Baptizer’s sense of isolation and abandonment, needing to be reminded to see all that God was doing all around him.

I remember it’s Advent and we are waiting for God’s way of deliverance, compassion, and mercy in this world. I am reminded that God has not abandoned us, but is coming to dwell among us.  In Jesus, we are given an example to follow and a path to sojourn.

When I find myself seeing it all – the despair, the brokenness, the hate, the sick, the wondering, the horribleness in the world – I draw near to the One for whom we are waiting. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel becomes my prayer.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in its ways to go. Refrain

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe. Refrain

O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave. Refrain

O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode. Refrain

O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light. Refrain

O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace. Refrain

 

Advent and Christmas Quiz, Part 2

16Dec

There are symbols and traditions around Advent and Christmas that even the most churched may not know much about. See what we uncovered in Part 1. I hope this enriches your understanding of Advent and even Christmas.

If you’re reading this from your email, go to EternalScheme.com to “take” the quiz.

1. In which historic period(s) is fruitcake mentioned?
a. Ancient Egypt
b. Roman Empire
c. Middle ages
d. Victorian England
e. All of the above
Check your answer.

2. Do you know how the Advent calendar began?
a. Chalk lines were drawn on the door to mark the days.
b. Religious families hung pictures on the wall, one for each day.
c. A candle was lit for each of the 24 days in December.
d. A mother fixed candies on a cardboard calendar for her son.
e. All of the above
Check your answer.

3. In Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, what follows “Dear desire of every nation…”
a. Born to set Thy people free.
b. Joy of every longing heart.
c. Shall come to thee, O Israel.
d. Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Check your answer.

4. What happened in December of 1914?
a. The first living Nativity scene was enacted
b. Macy’s held the first Christmas Parade featuring Santa Claus
c. A ‘Christmas truce’ went into effect between British and German soldiers
d. A Canadian inventor broadcast the first radio program, which included the carol “O Holy Night”
e. Hallmark released its first series of holiday cards
Check your answer.

5. Who originated Watch Night services?
a. Martin Luther
b. John Wesley
c. John the Baptist
d. Henry VIII
e. President William McKinley
Check your answer.

6. What was the shepherds’ first reaction when an angel of the Lord appeared to them?
a. They ignored them.
b. They were terrified.
c. They jumped for joy, excited to have something to share with others.
d. They thought they were having a drug-induced psychotic break.
Check your answer.

7. What color is associated with Advent?
a. Purple
b. Pink
c. Green
d. Gold
e. White
Check your answer.

8. What is Gaudete?
a. A Christmas carol
b. The third Sunday in Advent
c. Represented by the pink candle in the Advent wreath
d. All of the above
e. None of the above
Check your answer.

9. Who were the Magi?
a. Bible-times magicians
b. The main character in a play
c. Members of the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism who visited Jesus after his birth
Check you answer.

10. Which of these are Advent hymns?
a. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
b. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
c. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
d. Joy to the World
e. All of the above
Check your answer.

Answers

1. In which historic period(s) is fruitcake mentioned?

The correct answer is All of the above.

How fruitcake became associated with Christmas, no one knows for sure. One possibility is that due to its long shelf life, it could be sent as a gift to friends and relatives far from home. Others say it was often given to carolers in 19th century England. Do you like fruitcake?
Back to question

2. Do you know how the Advent calendar began?

The correct answer is All of the above.

Advent calendars originated in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. The tradition began with families drawing a chalk line on the door for each day of December. An Advent Clock was one way people marked the time, as well as lighting Advent candles, one for each day. Families also hung up a new image every day before Christmas.

One mother created a ‘calendar’ with 24 candies affixed to cardboard for her son, Gerhard Lang. Lang would grow up to be the first producer of printed Advent calendars featuring windows that opened to reveal colored pictures.
Back to question

3. In Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus, what follows “Dear desire of every nation…”

The correct answer is Joy of every longing heart.

In “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley wonderfully captured the anticipation of the people of Israel who longed hundreds of years for the coming of the Messiah. As we sing, we sense the words of the prophets calling the people to prepare the way of the Lord into history (Isaiah 40:3, Malachi 3:1-4), and into our hearts and lives.
Back to question

4. What happened in December of 1914?

The correct answer is A ‘Christmas truce’ between British and German soldiers.

In World War I, a series of temporary ceasefires along the Western Front saw groups of British and German soldiers emerging from foxholes to exchange greetings, presents and sing carols for a period of about 48 hours beginning December 24. The ‘Christmas truce’ documented in solders’ letters, photos and other first-hand accounts has become a symbol of man’s humanity to man even at the worst of times.
Back to question

5. Who originated Watch Night services?

The correct answer is John Wesley.

Methodism’s founder John Wesley created Watch Night services in 1740, presumably as an alternative to times of drunken revelry such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. It is included in the United Methodist Book of Worship.

Wesley believed that Methodists and all Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God annually. This service is often used in United Methodist Churches on New Year’s Eve. The covenant service is also sometimes observed on New Year’s Day or on the first Sunday in January.
Back to question

6. What was the shepherds’ first reaction when an angel of the Lord appeared to them?

The correct answer is They were terrified.

The gospel writer Luke records:

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

Wouldn’t you be terrified too?
Back to question

7. What color is associated with Advent?

The correct answer is Purple.

Purple has long been associated with royalty, as purple dye was rare and expensive. In Advent the church awaits the newborn king. Many Protestant churches, however, now use blue instead of purple. This is thought to have originated in Scandinavia, probably because purple dye was too expensive for churches to use.
Back to question

8. What is Gaudete?

The correct answer is All of the above.

The term is derived from the Latin opening words of the introit antiphon, “Rejoice (Gaudete) in the Lord always.” The theme of the day expresses the joy of anticipation at the approach of the Christmas celebration. The pink candle represents this theme of joy with the lighter candle.

Gaudete is also a sacred Christmas hymn from the 16th century. The Latin text is a typical medieval song of praise.
Back to question

9. Who were the Magi?

The correct answer is Members of the Persian priestly caste of Zoroastrianism who visited Jesus after his birth.

The Magi, also referred to as the (Three) Wise Men or (Three) Kings, were, in the Gospel of Matthew and Christian tradition, a group of distinguished foreigners who visited Jesus after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

According to Matthew, the Magi, they came “from the east” to worship the “king of the Jews”. Although the account does not mention the number of Magi, the three gifts has led to the widespread assumption that there were three men

All three gifts are ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense as a perfume, and gold as a valuable.
Back to question

10. Which of these are Advent hymns?

The correct answer is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Musically and liturgically, there are hymns for the season of Advent and Christmas carols for the season of Christmas. Advent hymns are often more minor in tune than Christmas hymns because Advent wants to give homage to this kind of waiting. However, many Protestant churches have eased up on the ban to sing Christmas carols prior to Christmas by adding selected carols in closer to Christmas Eve.
Back to question

How did you do?

Seeing Our Brokenness

15Dec

I was driving with my son and he remarked, “I just realized that I’m broken and I’m always going to be broken.” We both burst out laughing. What he said was profound and true. But he said it as though it just occurred to him out of the blue instead of after years of struggling with heartbreaking results.

We’re all broken. For some of us, our brokenness is more apparent. For others, our brokenness is more in the shadows. The question for each of us is whether we see our brokenness. And then, once we see our brokenness, will we live into it.

There is no shame in being broken. In fact, being broken is being human. We all have rough spots and uneven surfaces that are part of who we are. Where we go wrong is how we manage our brokenness. A person struggling with addiction will tell you that being in denial and using substances to numb or cope is not good management of their brokenness. Someone living with a chronic illness may have to make lifestyle adjustments or take medications in order to manage their brokenness.

The great mystery of God’s love is to live in our brokenness. It’s almost as if our unique brokenness is our invitation to God’s unique love for us. Jesus was drawn to the broken, those on the margins, and the invisible. He saw them. He addressed them. He gave voice to them. He loved them. In their brokenness. Without judgement. Unconditionally.

The great challenge for us is to live in our brokenness. Our weakness becomes our strength.

Once we stopped laughing, I reminded my son that the very essence of his brokenness was exactly what made him so special. His insights and abilities and creativity were augmented by his brokenness. It was just a matter of learning to harness it to serve himself and others, rather than be enslaved or traumatized by it.

Advent reminds us that the great mystery of God’s love is to live in our brokenness.

Seeing Our Vulnerability

14Dec

My whole family was together this past Thanksgiving. It’s the first time we’ve all been together in several years. We’re not a large family, so when even one is missing, we feel the emptiness of their absence. We’re blessed to have four generations represented and we’re looking forward to having everyone here this weekend for our family Christmas.

We’re also into four years since my brother’s death. He died the first week of December and his memorial service was at the end of the second week. Thanksgiving was the last time my parents, sister, and eldest son spent with my brother and his daughters. So this time of year brings up all sorts of stuff that we’d rather not be remembering and thinking and feeling.

Yet, Advent is the perfect time to be remembering and thinking and feeling. With Christmas, we celebrate God breaking into our human history through the birth of a vulnerable little baby whose very start in life was against all sorts of odds.

The great mystery is that with vulnerability and humility that God enters our humanity. If you wanted to get people’s attention, is that how you would have done it?

That’s probably why, when John the Baptizer had all that time to think and remember while he languished in Herod’s prison, he became uncertain about Jesus. He probably questioned his career path and some of the life choices he made. Did he really hear God’s call to eat locusts, live in the wilderness, and prepare the way of the One whom God was sending? After all, Jesus is only his cousin! Maybe we’re all crazy!

God is always there, but I believe it’s when we’re vulnerable that we’re most receptive to God’s presence. When all the distractions and disruptions subside and we’re left alone with our thoughts and memories and feelings – and we are honest with ourselves about our vulnerability – that’s when we become aware that we’re not really alone, but that God is there in the mess with us.

My brother’s death dis-spelled all notions that the Peterson-Fouquet-Hokama family was fully intact and impervious to any vulnerability. It’s one thing to know intellectually that life happens. It’s another to experience vulnerability to the core. It’s knowing in your knower that your life is different and not going to be the same. It’s becoming aware of your new normal. And, hopefully, it’s experiencing God’s presence in it all.

Who Don’t We See?

13Dec

I went with my sister to her oncology appointment today. We were coming in the building just as a young man on a gurney was being wheeled in by the ambulance transport team. Another man followed my sister and me in. He had a rolling suitcase, a valise, and keeping some distance between himself and us, also waited for the elevator.

We couldn’t all fit in the elevator, so my sister and I waited for the next one. The man with the suitcase got in with us. She asked him which floor he wanted. He held up three fingers. That’s when we noticed he had a trach and couldn’t talk. She confirmed which floor. He nodded. She asked, “Is that the infusion center?” He nodded. The door for our floor opened and we stepped out, saying, “Have a good day” as the doors were closing. He smiled. I doubt he was going to be having a good day.

We met up with the gurney man and the transport team at the check-in desk.He wasn’t going to be having a good day either. There was confusion as to where he really was supposed to be. Was it below ground for radiation? The infusion center for a day of poison slowly being dripped into his vein? Or with the doctor before he was to be wheeled off to who-knows-where? Was anyone going to talk to him – alert man on the gurney – or talk about him through his transport team, who were just assigned to bring him to the cancer center?

The gospel passage for this third week of Advent calls us to see people we might have overlooked or who we might see differently now. Jesus specifically calls our attention to the blind, the disabled, the lepers, the dead, and the poor. How have we viewed these people? And then, given how Jesus treats these people and our turning and commitment to follow his way, how are we to see them now? What will we do differently?

Our culture is in danger of the bias of “ability.” We norm our world and our expectations for others on their ability to see, hear, have no physical or mental disabilities, and who have at least middle class economic means. Often there’s an assumption that “healing” needs to happen so “these people” can join in with the rest of us. Who’s to say what “normal” is or if “normal” is the same for everyone? Who’s to say whether or not someone needs to be “healed”? Healing comes in many forms, and often the person who doesn’t think they need healing is exactly who needs to be healed! As hard as it is to have a loved one die, dying is a difficult part of life, as is illness, and other infirmities that we must learn to live with.

Jesus turns all of those assumptions upside down when he responds to John’s question:

Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

It’s time to consider seeing a new normal. For that young man on the gurney, his life will never be the same now that he has cancer. He may one day be cancer-free or he may die from the cancer, but his life now is reset with a new normal. No doubt he is making adjustments in his life – like not being able to transport himself to his appointments – but he still has much to contribute to us. And we have much to learn from him.

It all depends on who we see. Do we see him? Do we see him?

What Do You See?

12Dec

It’s one thing to look around and see the wonder of creation. It’s another thing to look around and see the work of God in our midst. What have you seen with your own eyes or heard with your own ears?

Who do you know who can finally see after groping about in the shadows of despair, pain, or grief?

Who do you know who is back on their feet after limping along, barely making it?

Where have you seen healing from physical, emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, or systemic dis-ease? Where have you seen reconciliation or hope restored?

How have you seen the good news of Jesus Christ be made real to the poor, or love and justice for those in need?

The good news of God’s saving love is real and all around us. So often we miss it because the real miracles of the blind, lame, deaf, broken, and essentially dead are overlooked or invisible. It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of the season or distracted by the activities of our daily lives that we miss these every day miracles.

Or maybe there is something small we can do to to be a miracle in someone’s life? A handwritten note to someone you haven’t heard from in awhile? A cup of coffee for the homeless person outside Starbucks? The clothing and household items dropped off at Goodwill? Holding the store door open for the person using a walker or reaching for an out-of-reach item on the grocery shelf? Dropping off a meal for a family who has someone in or just home from the hospital? Home baked cookies for the person living alone next door?

The possibilities are endless. What do you see?

Do You See What I See?

11Dec

This week we find our hero John the Baptizer locked up in prison. At this point in Matthew’s story, we don’t have information as to why he’s in prison. The story is told later in Matthew, where we find out that Herod Antipas has ordered his imprisonment and he’s locked up in his fortress near the Dead Sea. (Spoiler alert: it’s a grisly outcome!)

While in his cell, John hears news about the activities of the One whom he told was coming. Apparently, there’s something in the news he receives that is troublesome to him now. He was certain of who Jesus was when he was preaching about his coming while out in the wilderness. He definitely was certain Jesus was the Messiah when he baptized him. But now, he’s not so sure.

John sends some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah. In typical Jesus fashion, he sends them back, telling them to tell John about all that they have seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Jesus responds, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

I think it’s refreshing to know that those who knew Jesus personally had doubts from time to time about whether he really was the Messiah. Even John the Baptizer, whose entire job and purpose was to prepare the way for Jesus, was not sure about Jesus. We can surmise, but we really don’t know, why he was questioning. We do know he sends his followers to go ask Jesus again.

I think it’s normal if we followers of Jesus occasionally slip back into wondering. In fact, this time of year lends itself to wondering as we consider what Jesus’ birth means for us. Just as John found himself in circumstances that tested his resolve, we all have things in our lives that will test our own resolve.

This is a difficult time of year for many. Many are facing this holiday for the first time without a beloved partner, parent, child, or close friend. Others have been downsized out of a job or who never make enough to pay rent, put food on the table, and pay for utilities. There are those who are struggling with their addictions and losing the battle to their demons. What will our lives be like with a seemingly unstable person about to become president? Then there is the insecurity of terrorism, natural disaster, or a deeper economic recession.

Maybe it’s in uncertain and fearful times like these that we reach deep and push ourselves into those hard and difficult questions. We ask ourselves anew, “Why is it I have trusted this Jesus with my entire life?” What can we say to those whose lives leave them wondering who Jesus is or where is he? What can we provide to assure others he is worthy of our trust and faith? How can we offer his good news to someone, like John the Baptizer, who feels insecure at best and terrified at worst?

It is to us, like the followers of John the Baptizer, that Jesus says, “Go out there and SEE! Go listen for yourselves. Find the good news of God’s saving grace out there in the world. It is there for all to see. The sun rises every morning and sets every evening. The spring returns after the long, cold winter. Even as some are leaving this world for eternal rest, others are being born into it with each new breath. The splendor of the stars, the breathtaking variety of creation and the amazing wonder in each form of life that exists. It’s all a wonder for us to see! Do you see what I see?

Putting Christ Back in Christmas

10Dec

There’s a bumper sticker that you’ve probably seen, “Put Christ back in Christmas.” Conservatives started using it as a response to their perception that we’ve lost out moral fabric and succumbed to liberal political correctness police by taking Christ out of Christmas when we say “Happy Holidays.”

As one who considers Christ as the bedrock of my life, I’m all for putting Christ back in Christmas if it means recognizing all people are beloved, cherished children of God – even if their skin color, faith tradition, country of origin, and cultural practices are different than their’s.

I’m all for putting Christ back in Christmas if it means accepting the humility of Christ by loving those considered unlovable, serving the those who considered unfit to be served, giving sanctuary to those fleeing persecution, war, or hostility.

I’m all for putting Christ back in Christmas if it means understanding that proclaiming the gospel without demonstrating God’s love through service and social justice is just hollow words that mean nothing.

I’m all for putting Christ back in Christmas if it means we’re more concerned about the mission, and not the institution, of the church.

I’m all for putting Christ back in Christmas if it means our lives are living sacrifices poured out for others as Christ himself poured out his life so that we might live.

I’m all for returning to the purpose of Christmas back to Jesus Christ. I’m all for giving myself over anew to the way of Christ. If we really want to put Christ back in Christmas, maybe we ought to begin by doing what John the Baptizer called on people to do before Jesus came into the world the first time: Repent. To repent means to turn, and then to turn again, and again and again, to God. It is to turn to the kind of life we know we ought to be living.

The extent to which we are able to give ourselves over to Jesus is the extent to which we enter the kingdom of heaven in this life. And the only way we can abide in it is by turning, and turning, and turning again to Christ. That’s what it means to put Christ back in Christmas. Anything less is just Happy Holidays.

Advent Quiz, Part 1

9Dec

There are symbols and traditions around Advent and Christmas that even the most churched may not know much about. This Advent Quiz is part 1. Next week we’ll have part 2. I hope this enriches your understanding of Advent and even Christmas.

1. Is Advent a fixed number of days?
a. Yes
b. No
Check your answer.

2. Why are the Advent candles and wreath arranged in a circle?
a. It’s the easiest way to see all four candles.
b. It takes up the least space.
c. Circles symbolize eternity.
Check your answer.

3. What is a manger?
a. A feeding trough
b. A cave
c. A wooden cradle
Check your answer.

4. Why did churches first display Advent wreaths with candles?
a. It was a way to light churches before electricity.
b. The candles symbolized the coming of Christ as the light of the world.
c. Evergreens, originally used in the wreath, symbolized the eternal life that we have in Christ.
d. All of the above
e. None of the above
Check your answer.

5. What is the traditional Mexican living Nativity celebration called?
a. Feliz Navidad
b. Las Posadas
c. Nochebuena
d. All of the above
e. None of the above
Check your answer.

6. What do the Advent candles symbolize on the Advent wreath?
a. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
b. Angels, Wise Men, Shepherds, the Holy Family
c. Hope, Love, Joy, Peace
d. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace
e. Nothing. They just mark the days until Christmas.
Check your answer.

7. Why didn’t Joseph divorce Mary after he found out she was pregnant?
a. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.
b. He didn’t want to lose the dowry.
c. Divorces 2,000 years ago were very expensive.
d. All of the above
e. None of the above
Check your answer.

8. How many days are in Advent this year?
a. 26
b. 27
c. 28
d. 29
Check your answer.

9. Why are many “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services held on December 21?
a. That is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.
b. It is close to Christmas Day.
c. It is the traditional Feast Day of St. Thomas (“doubting” Thomas).
d. All of the above
e. None of the above
Check your answer.

10. According to tradition, how far did Mary travel to visit Elizabeth?
a. Approximately 10 miles
b. Approximately 50 miles
c. Approximately 100 miles
d. Approximately 500 miles
Check your answer.

Answers

1. Is Advent a fixed number of days?

The correct answer is No.

The season of Advent, which comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming” or “visit,” begins four Sundays before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. When Christmas Day is on a Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent is on a Sunday, so there are four full weeks to the season. If Christmas is on any other day, the total number of Advent days will vary between 22 and 27.
Back to question

2. Why are the Advent candles and wreath arranged in a circle?

The correct answer is Circles symbolize eternity.

Circles, because they have no beginning and no end, are a symbol of eternity, wholeness, and even the world itself. The wreath, a circle of evergreens (another symbol of eternity), is a reminder during Advent of our waiting for the eternal to come into our midst.
Back to question

3. What is a manger?

The correct answer is Feeding trough.

A manger is a feeding trough for cattle or horses and its mention in the Gospel of Luke suggests that Jesus was born in a stable or other rough form of lodging.

She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guest room. — Luke 2:7 (CEB)

While biblical scholars are not sure if the location was actually a stable, cave or other shelter, the inference is clear that the Son of God was born in the most humble of circumstances. The Nativity scene with its shepherds, sheep and other animals is a cherished Christian tradition that celebrates the ‘lowly’ birth of the Christ child.
Back to question

4. Why did churches first display Advent wreaths with candles?

The correct answer is All of the above.

While the Advent wreath with its four candles did bring light to churches, it was not to illuminate the interior as much as to symbolize the coming of Christ. The Advent wreath began in the time of Protestant reformer, Martin Luther.
Back to question

5. What is the traditional Mexican living Nativity celebration called?

The correct answer is Las Posadas.

Posada is Spanish for “lodging”, or “shelter.” The plural term refers to a nine-day celebration, a living Nativity scene, with a procession which includes people portraying Joseph and Mary, who knock on doors seeking shelter. The nine days represent the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy carrying Jesus.
Back to question

6. What do the Advent candles symbolize on the Advent wreath?

The correct answer is Hope, Love, Joy, Peace.

During each Sunday of the Advent season, we focus on one of the four virtues Jesus brings us: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. The order and exact wording vary among churches, but the wreath continually reminds us of whom we are called to be as followers of Jesus.
Back to question

7. Why didn’t Joseph divorce Mary after he found out she was pregnant?

The correct answer is An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.

Like the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, an angel of the Lord reassured Joseph in a dream that he could trust God’s plan; the baby his new wife carried was the Messiah.

As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. –Matthew 1:20-21 (CEB).

Back to question

8. How many days are in Advent this year?

The correct answer is 28.
Back to question

9. Why are many “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services held on December 21?

The correct answer is All of the above.

“Longest Night” or “Blue Christmas” worship services offer healing and hope to those struggling to find joy during the Christmas season. Many churches hold these reflective services on Dec. 21, which is the winter solstice and longest night of the year. Falling just before Christmas, it is a wonderful time to remember that Jesus, the light of the world, is always with us. Finally, Dec. 21 is also the traditional Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle, whom many know better as “doubting” Thomas. Knowing how Thomas struggled to accept Jesus’ resurrection until he saw it with his own eyes, can be comforting to those hurting today.
Back to question

10. According to tradition, how far did Mary travel to visit Elizabeth?

The correct answer is approximately 100 miles.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Gabriel visited Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1:26), telling her she would give birth to Jesus. Mary then traveled to the home of her relative Elizabeth, who Luke tells us lived in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). Tradition says that Elizabeth and Zechariah probably lived in or near the city of Hebron, nearly 100 miles from Nazareth.

It would have taken Mary about a week to make the journey on foot.

Later in her pregnancy, Mary would travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, another journey of 70-80 miles one way.
Back to question

How did you do? Next week, we’ll test our knowledge of Advent and Christmas with some more traditions and symbols.

Truth Telling

8Dec

It had been 400 years since the Jewish people heard the voice of a prophet. Four hundred years when the voice of prophecy was silent. The Jewish prophets of the Old Testament weren’t so much conveyors of the future, but truth-tellers. They pointed out what was wrong in their midst and called people to turn from the wrong-doing to what they new in their hearts to be right.

Sometimes I think we’re afraid of calling out the wrongs in our midst or we’re in denial that there are any problems at all! I know it’s hard to put the blinders on in the middle of the most distracting season of the year, but see if you can take five minutes to ponder what might be some of the sins in our American culture.

I thought I’d put a modern spin on the seven deadly sins to jump start my pondering. Here’s what I came up with:

Old: pride; New: privilege. Having privileges in society that you refuse to admit to yourself and others. Believing that there is a level playing field and not accepting that the doors of opportunity are not open to everyone. Believing that others don’t have your advantages because they aren’t working hard enough to attain them.

Old: envy; New: photo obsession. Endless posting on social media as a way to show others you have a better life than what you’re seeing of others in your feed. In reality, you’re living your life through a lens because you’re envious of the celebrity of others.

Old: gluttony; New: over-indulgence. Flippantly stating, “You can never have enough.” Making blanket statements that don’t mean anything or don’t have any grounding in fact. Over eating, drinking too much, and anything else that consumes you.

Old: lust; New: sexual objectification, sexual assault, misogyny. The recent presidential election and the horrific attitudes toward women brought this sin front and center. End of story.

Old: anger; New: normalizing hate speech and intimidation, domestic violence, bullying. Speech and actions that promote violence, approve of oppression, and alienate groups and individuals come from an evil place.

Old: greed; New: economic inequality. There’s a problem when less than 1% of the population owns and controls a disproportionate share of capital, political influence, and the means of production.

Old: sloth; New: reality programming. I hate reality shows. It’s the ultimate disregard for the truth of your own life. Living vicariously through the made-up lives of others denigrates the uniqueness of your own and keeps you from fully engaging in your own reality.

What truth telling do you have?

Turning from the Worst in Humanity

7Dec

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attack which dragged the United States into World War II. If there’s anything we’ve come to understand, it’s that geo-political events have far-reaching consequences that ultimately impact all of us, no matter where we are on the planet.

In Europe, World War II is perceived as having its roots in the aftermath of the Great War, World War I. The Treaty of Versailles and the rise of fascism – extreme right-wing, authoritarian, or intolerant views or practice – sparked the rise of Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. In Asia, the roots of Japan’s aggression was 90 years in the making when Japan was forced to confront their isolationism and, in order to avoid the fate of China succumbing to Western imperialism, embarked on a systematic path of industrialization, militarization, and imperialism.

War, and the events leading up to war, bring out the best and worst in humanity. What can we draw from the lessons of Pearl Harbor that might have meaning for us in this second week of Advent?

First, isolationism comes at a price. Japan thought isolationism would protect them from the fate of China. But when Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy ignored Japan’s directives, Japan was confronted with the fact they were technologically outmatched and not perceived to be equal to the United States. On the other hand, the United States took an isolationist stance while Japan was conquering Asia and Germany was conquering Europe. By 1941, both the Nazis and Japan had occupied nations and people, subjugating millions to horrible atrocities.

Imagine the unimaginable. The cultural orientation of the United States could not fathom the mindset the the Japanese fighter pilots who would embark on a one-way suicide mission to destroy a United States military base. Denial precludes decent human beings from imagining the unimaginable as what happened in the Nazi concentration camps, Nanking, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

It is immoral to single out any specific ethnic, religious, or social group. Two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which authorized the internment of Japanese Americans and people of Japanese ancestry to relocation camps. What is not as well known, is that smaller numbers of Italian Americans and German Americans were also interned. The Nazis not only systematically targeted the Jewish people, but also every other minority or dissident not considered Aryan: Slavs, Romanis, LGBT people, the disabled, Freemasons, people of color, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, leftists, and a host of other groups.

If the Unites States had accepted more refugees, hundreds of thousands of Jews, gays, and others would have been saved from the Holocaust. Roosevelt was convinced that a large influx of refugees would pose a security threat and place a burden on the American economy that was recovering from the Great Depression. A European Jewish refugee ship was even sent back to Germany. They were all exterminated. Hundreds of thousands could have been saved if they had been allowed temporary sanctuary.

The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is an opportunity for us to repent for our attitudes and actions that lead to persecution and destruction of our shared humanity. The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is an opportunity to turn from division, alienation, and fear. The commemoration of Pearl Harbor is that we can put the worst of humanity behind us and not allow the sins that brought us to Pearl Harbor and World War II take root. Ever. Again.

The Dreaded Brood of Vipers

6Dec

Vipers must have had a terrible reputation in first-century Judaism. Our advent writer, Matthew, quotes John the Baptizer’s use of the infamous phrase. ““You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'” Later, Matthew records Jesus using this descriptive phrase, coincidentally, on the same group of religious leaders. Hmmm.

Anytime we see a specific group of people listed in the New Testament, it’s important for us to find out who they are. When we understand the players and context of these events, we can better make an application in our own lives.

The Pharisees were the largest “party” within first century Judaism. They were influential in synagogue life throughout the entire Judean region. They were concerned with living a holy life as prescribed by the Torah, prophets, and writings. For them, God’s holiness was most evident in how someone lived their life. The pharisees embraced a number of doctrines not specifically mentioned in the Torah, but found widespread acceptance after the Babylonian exile. Jesus’ own beliefs were most closely aligned with the Pharisees, having been to synagogues where Pharisees were most influential. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, it was the essence of the Pharisee vision that went on to become mainstream Judaism.

Then there are the Sadducees. The Sadducees were located primarily in Jerusalem. They were guardians of the ritual and worship in the temple. They cared about holiness and found strict adherence to the Torah essential to maintaining the purity Torah demanded. Many were priests and God’s holiness was demonstrated in right worship. The Sadducees forged a strong alliance with the Roman government and many served in government leadership. These two realities – their association with the temple and their relationship with the government – were their sources of power and influence at the time of Jesus. They were more conservative that the Pharisees, but influential nonetheless. Hmmm.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were easily recognized by their dress. Pharisees, or at least their leaders, often wore long blue fringe or phylacteries (small boxes containing the ten commandments) on their wrists or foreheads. Likewise, since many Sadducees were also priests in the temple, they often wore temple vestments. Interestingly, the clothing of each group reflected the things each cared about most – prayer and obedience to Torah in daily life for the Pharisees, and the purity of worship in the temple for the Sadducees.

I have not forgotten about the vipers! Did you know that many snakes, including many species of vipers, are viviparous, giving LIVE birth rather than laying eggs? While I think God had a significant lapse of judgment in allowing snakes to evolve, John’s vivid image of viviparous snakes may have been intended to convey his amazement that even leaders among the Pharisees and Sadducees were coming to him for baptism when he, himself, had never warned them about the “wrath to come.”

This is where something gets lost in translation too. Earlier, Matthew recorded that John was shouting (“boa’w”) at the top of his lungs, trying to get his message heard. Here, however, Matthew does not use the verb “boa’w” (shout) to describe how John addressed them. Instead, he uses the verb “eipen,” which means simply, “said,” as in a typical conversational way.

He then goes on to instruct them as he was instructing everyone else about what was at stake in taking on his baptism. Just because they were religious leaders did not exempt them from the truth of his message: a real and vital repentance. They -and we – are no longer dealing with matters that exact daily obedience to Torah or the purest attention to detail in ritual. We are dealing with one who comes baptizing with Holy Spirit and fire. We must truly repent – turn, and dramatically change our actions. If we don’t, our attentiveness to righteousness, in any form, will be swept away with the chaff into unquenchable fire.

Hmm. Being called a brood of vipers is sounding a whole lot better than turn or burn!

Turn or Burn. Really?

5Dec

I never mastered the hellfire and brimstone style of preaching. You have to be willing to go places in your message that terrifies, shames, coerces, or guilts people. Hellfire and brimstone preaching is not not prophetic. It’s manipulative and harmful.

That’s not to say we don’t need to repent and change our ways. We do. We all do. It’s always easy to point fingers to others who need to change. It’s harder to see those not-so-blatant attitudes and behaviors we have ourselves. Moreover, if we don’t engage in any self-reflection or prayerful guidance, we can easily overlook our sinful inklings. But deep down, in our heart of hearts, we know and we want to change. We will even seek it out.

That’s who I’m reminded about when I wonder about those who went out into the desert to confess their sins, repent, and be baptized by John. Who were they and what were they looking for?

Sometimes I think we look to traditions and holidays, like Christmas, to retreat to so we can be distracted from real life. It’s not hard getting caught up in the idealized vision of Christmas created in the movies, music, and The Nutcracker (disclaimer: we do have three precious granddaughters who make The Nutcracker magical). The Christmas of the media is one where the world is a happy place, perfect families gather around a beautifully decorated tree to drink eggnog and sing carols. It’s a world where no one fights or is ugly, and Uncle Joe doesn’t drink too much. It’s a world where terrorist acts, political gerrymandering, and the realities of the economic crisis don’t intrude. It’s a world where Santa rewards good little girls and boys and no one gets kidnapped, abused or murdered by a parent. Most important, it’s a world that doesn’t have much to do with the birth or life of Christ.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not the reality that I know! I’m beginning to get a very clear picture of who went out into that scary wilderness to listen to what a scary dude had to say. Stay tuned for the “brood of vipers”!

Turn, Turn, Turn

4Dec

John the Baptizer was a very scary dude in a very scary place.

First, there was his appearance. His clothes were made from camel hair. I don’t think Matthew is describing the soft, stylish men’s camel hair sport coat you can buy in a fine clothing store. I think he’s thinking more like the stinky, dirty hair off a real camel! He pulled his outfit together with a leather belt which, I am certain, was not finely crafted Italian leather. It was more like a strap or rope. John  was not a GQ icon.

Secondly, there was his behavior. At least he wasn’t a vegan. His diet did consist of locusts, which, are considered an animal. I doubt locusts were considered a delicacy, but they must have been plentiful. I can’t imagine where he found honey in the Judean desert! And then there was his voice. He only had an outside voice which he used at full volume and high intensity. He felt his message was urgent, of life or death, and he wanted to be heard above the fray. He shouted.

That brings us to his location. The Judean desert is just east of Jerusalem. It’s a dry, harsh, mountainous wilderness that remains sparsely populated. Its rugged landscape was a great place for rebels and hermits to hang out. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d take your family for a summer picnic.

Finally, there was his message. He’s out in the middle of nowhere, shouting at the top of his lungs,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Amazingly, people from everywhere – from Jerusalem and all of Judea, even all the region along the Jordon – not only flock to hear him shout at them, but to confess their sins and then subject themselves to his particular brand of baptism: a baptism of repentance.

Welcome to the second week of Advent. Where our focus for week one was to watch and wait, the focus for this week is to turn and change. We’re not done with scary John the Bapitzer yet.

In the meantime, you might ponder who would leave the safety of their homes and neighborhoods to a place of insecurity and discomfort to hear this scary man shout at them and compel them to confess their sins and turn away from their old way of life? Would you?

In case you’re wondering where I got this crazy story, here’s the passage from Matthew that we’re going to be considering this week:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

 

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

 

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

 

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

 

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” ~ Matthew 3:1-12

Wrapping Up Our Week of Watching and Waiting

3Dec

Time to take a breath! My saintly husband Sam told me he was glad to wrap up the Advent week of watching so he can watch today’s college football games!

One of my pastoral tasks was praying. If I wasn’t preaching, my primary responsibility during the worship service was the pastoral prayer. When out visiting parishioners where they lived and worked, I was often asked if I would “offer up a prayer.” I never left a hospital room without asking the person or family I was visiting if they would like to pray. Even if they are uncomfortable with the idea of praying, people do expect it of clergy (even if they secretly hope you’ll forget)!

My practice was to begin with, “Let us pray…” And then silence. Thirty seconds or so of silence … uncomfortable silence. I always knew how uncomfortable people were by their fidgeting or clearing of throats. As people got used to my practice, I would begin with “Let us pray,” they would take a deep breath, and settle into the silence. More than any words I could offer, that silence and waiting was the prayer.

My natural response was to tune into the silence and listen for all that was happening. That is exactly what Advent is all about.

Why not make it your Advent practice to tune into the silence and listen. It only take a minute. Be still, close your eyes and notice your breath. Take a deep breath, then exhale. About six or seven deep breaths and exhales is one minute. You can do this anytime throughout your day. Silence. Watch. Wait. Amen.

Watching for God in the Midst of Upheaval

2Dec

What sets Christianity apart from other faith traditions is that God became like us in order to bring us back to God and show us in Jesus what it means to be truly human. If there was ever a politically relevant time we needed to be reminded of what is means to be human, it is now.

There was tremendous upheaval when God broke into our human history, coming to be with us in the form of a vulnerable baby born to a teenage mother in a filthy animal stall. Mary was homeless at the time, traveling with her husband to be taxed by the occupying power, Rome. Their country was occupied and her people oppressed by an imperial leader who was so threatened by the birth of her baby that he murdered countless children in an effort to destroy the Christ child whose kingdom might compete with his. As a result, Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus would become refugees, fleeing for their very lives.

Not a far stretch from the upheaval we have in our world today. Advent readies us for the One who comes to show us how different God’s priorities are from the rulers of the world. Choosing to live by God’s priorities can be a threat to those who seek to govern with an authoritarian, us-versus-them, and they-better-look-act-and-have values-like me mentality.

Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation – God with us. I think of the Incarnation as God hitting the streets. Preparing for that is the meaning of Advent. This prep time is our opportunity to reflect and let the intensity of what’s to come sink in because it’s not what we expect!

When God hits the streets, he’s not hitting the Wall Street of first century Palestine! Jesus wasn’t born in the Trump Tower of Bethlehem and the only gold he had was given to him by someone from another religious tradition! No, Jesus was poor and displaced all his life. He had a blue-collar job, and never envied or emulated the rich. His mission was to “the poor” and “the least of these,” – in other words, anyone and everyone on the margins. His closest friends looked like the United Nations of misfits, all but one dying while continuing his mission once he was gone. Not what was expected then and not what is popular today.

This Advent, I’m watching for God in the upheaval. I want to be there in the mix!

 

Watch Out for This Nativity Set!

1Dec

A few years ago, my Dad got me more animals for my nativity set. My set hadn’t had any upgrades since my sons were young. I knew there were new pieces to the set, but other gifts and decor took purchase priority. I started my Christmas decorating today and the nativity set is always the first thing that’s unearthed from the storage bin.

Believe it or not, Christian churches have all sorts of rules about what can be displayed and what hymns can be sung during Advent. Needless to say, I don’t follow strict dogma. Our granddaughters love to play with the nativity set when they come the week before Christmas for our annual Family Christmas. Since it’s technically still Advent, they wouldn’t have the joy of playing with the nativity set if I was dogmatic about it. It’s always enlightening, and quite amusing, to watch them play.

As you can imagine, California does not have public space nativity scenes. Private citizens, however, can display nativity scenes, and many erect elaborate holiday scenes replete with the Grinch, Santa and his reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and blonde, blue-eyed, baby Jesus. Truly sights to behold!

Have you seen the Hipster Nativity Set? I was reading an article in my newsfeed about Millennials when my eye caught this picture. I just about spit my coffee out across the room! Jospeh’s man bun, yoga pants Mary, the solar roof stable and other hipster details are definitely 2016.

If you find yourself having a strong reaction to this hipster nativity set, it might be time to check in with yourself about the whole Christmas story. Advent is just the time to do that! There is nothing routine or predictable about God. Everything about Jesus testifies to that, beginning with his nativity.

The three wisemen totally rocked the segways in the Hipster Nativity Set! But I must confess. My camels are pretty cool.

Watching for the Ordinary

30Nov

Advent is all about expectant waiting. Actually, Jesus disciples are called to a life of expectant waiting. Most of us live in a culture that does not like to wait for anything, much less expectantly. Most of us have our own deadline-driven action plans that rule our lives. This is not what Jesus had in mind as recorded in our Matthew scripture passage.

What does expectant waiting look like? Jesus gives us good guidance. It’s not about looking up, but looking around. Jesus came in the midst of ordinary life – in the midst of eating and drinking, working in the fields and at the mill.

If we think about where Jesus did most of his ministry, it was exactly in those ordinary places. It was in homes of friends, at the bedsides of the sick, while walking along the road, while just hanging out. I imagine it be like meeting a friend at Starbucks, visiting a loved one in the hospital, driving the carpool, or grocery shopping. Nothing special, but in the midst of what we do in our every day lives.

What do we see when we look around at the people with whom we find in our lives? Do we see these ordinary people and events as alien life forms and artifacts that are imposed on our lives? Or do we see see them as part of God interfacing and intersecting with our lives? We don’t know who will carry God’s message or presence to us, so we must be on the look out with everyone and everywhere.

What are we looking for? Are we looking for the end of the world through some apocalyptic disaster? Or do we see God’s transforming power as we come together to care for one another, welcome the stranger, or in just being kind to those we meet? We don’t know when or how God will show up, so we must be watching anywhere and anytime.

Finally, how are we watching and waiting? Are we filled with anxiety and fear because we don’t want to miss out and be “left behind”? Have we gotten bored and distracted? Or have we tuned our hearts and vision to being aware of what and who are around us? Will we discover opportunities to witness to the wonders and joy in ordinary things with ordinary people are always with us?  Are we watching? Waiting expectantly?

Watching for the Unknown

29Nov

Thirty-seven years ago, my youngest son emerged into this world in the early hours of a blizzard morning. I had been eagerly waiting and watching for him. I had a difficult pregnancy and that heightened my concerns for what was unknown all those months he dwelt within me.

So much was unknown at that time. With a twenty-one month old and a newborn, was I going to really be able to continue my seminary studies? How was his older brother going to do sharing his mother’s affection? Was my fragile marriage going to survive additional onslaught? I had a stop-gap surgery during my pregnancy, how long was I going to be able to put off the major surgery?

And that was the immediate unknown. What about the rest of the unknowns: his childhood and teen-age years? College? Adulthood? His own career? Marriage and family? Health? Add to that his brother’s unknown future and my unknown future and you have all the makings of an anxiety producing life and family!

I think that’s exactly why we don’t know what our future holds. We may think that knowing what’s coming will help us prepare, but we’re never really prepared even when we do know! Things rarely go as planned or anticipated. We may plan for every contingency, but something always pops up, often when we least expect it or in a way we hadn’t considered.

Advent reminds us that the unknown is a gift from God. I also think that waiting or entering into that unknown – as scary as it may seem – actually helps us prepare for what’s ahead. When we stop, rest, and wait, we give ourselves the opportunity to catch up with ourselves. What I’ve really come to know, lo these many years, is that when I’m faced with a vast expanse of unknown, I am not alone. God’s presence dwells with me as I wait. God holds my hand as I walk unsteadily on the uneven terrain. God guides me when the path becomes obscured.

A few hours after my son’s birth, I was sitting up in my hospital room, holding this precious little being that had finally arrived. I looked out the window toward the majestic Rocky Mountains as the sun was rising in the east. The icy white landscape sparkled. Everything ahead was unknown, and yet there was so much to treasure in those precious moments. I sensed God whispering in my ear, “Now we wait. In the meantime, enjoy this beautiful sunrise with your new son.”

P.S. Happy birthday, Luke. I love you!

Watching for Surprises

28Nov

One of the hallmarks of this past year for me has been surprise. I do not like surprises. Surprises are unsettling and mess up time tables and outcomes. Surprises are disruptive and inject uncertainty and the unknown. Surprises force us let go of plans and outcomes and enter into a new sacred space of unknowingness.

When I had my worn out ankle replacement removed and all kinds of bone grafting and metal spikes and screws constructed in its place, I really thought I’d go through an extensive recovery and rehabilitation and come out on the other side be just about good as before. I was not watching for any surprises. Too bad for me because these past sixteen months has been one surprise after another with this ankle!

We truly don’t know what will happen or how things will go. In our Advent reading this week, Matthew writes of one being “taken” and one being “left”, surviving the onslaught of the taker. Two co-workers are on the same work team. One is diagnosed with cancer and another remains healthy. Two well-qualified applicants are applying for the same position. One gets the job and the other doesn’t. Two high school kids are coming home from the football game. One is killed in the car accident and the other lives. You’re in the wedding party of two friends. One couple stays married and the other divorces.

Surprises all around. While not all surprises are tragic or life-altering, they are an invitation to watch for the presence of God in surprises. Sometimes we have to wait awhile to see the presence of God in a situation and that can be painful. But the promise of Scripture is that God is reliable, meets us at the point of our greatest need, and accompanies us even and especially in the surprises and unbearable circumstances.

When I am watching for surprises – and there will be surprises – I know to also watch for God. God will show up. How and where and in whom God shows up may also be a surprise, but God does meet me. God meets me in that unsettling and uncertain surprise. God comforts me in all that disruption. As God accompanies me, a sense of purpose is gradually revealed. The surprise becomes a sacred experience which transforms me. Ah, the little gems along the Advent journey.

Watch

27Nov

Another Advent journey begins today. In a sense, I have been anticipating this Advent for an entire year! It has been a year of watching and waiting. A year of struggle and managing. A year of reunions and saying goodbye. A year of new normals and carving out the sacred in the ordinary. It’s been a hard, bittersweet year. A fresh, unknowingness awaits.

At 11 years, my eldest granddaughter is a prolific artist. She has volumes of compositions notebooks and reams of binder paper filled with stories and poems and drawings of her stories and imaginings. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, she and I talked about how we read and how we write. No one else in our family understands why we read the end of books first or why we write from the perspective of the conclusion. It’s not so much that we must know exactly what’s going to transpire, but that everything we are going to read or write will come together for some meaningful purpose.

That’s how the Scripture for this Advent begins too. Before Jesus left this earthly realm, he reminded his followers that he would return. By the time Matthew writes his chronicle of Jesus, roughly 50 years have passed. His followers have been waiting for a long time and he writes to encourage them to stay alert and watch for Jesus’ return. Otherwise, they might miss God’s advent among.

This is what Matthew says to the community to whom he is writing:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark,  and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” ~ Matthew 24:36-44

Here we are, more then two millennia later, and we are still waiting! In fact, we have been waiting so long, I’m pretty sure most people are no longer waiting. Just as Matthew’s message fell on many deaf ears at the end of that first century, I’m certain most people today are no longer waiting.

Here’s the thing: I think we completely miss the message when we focus on Jesus’ return. Matthew reminds us that not even Jesus knows the hour of his return. It’s going to be unexpected. The real message we need to focus on is the profound sense of uncertainty this passage evokes.

Uncertainty, surprises, unexpected events are something we do know something about. We live in a culture that wants what we want now. We expect on-time delivery and are intolerant of delays. We don’t like waiting and we aren’t very patient. We’re so busy focusing on ourselves that we miss what’s happening around us. We don’t want to wait and we certainly don’t want to watch for something or someone.

Of course, that’s exactly what God wants for us. Not only does God want that for us, God is reminding us how integral waiting and watching are to our very humanity. So begins this year’s Advent journey.

While most advent calendars begin on December 1, our advent calendar will be on this year’s first day of Advent, November 27. Each day we will “open” our advent window to see what God might have for us that day. I hope you will check in each day (or better yet, sign up to have each blog post delivered directly to your email!) and join me on this Advent journey.