Friday, December 24, 2010

Driving Home Christmas Eve...

I know that for those who have been pastors for a long time, Christmas may seem like a lot of work. There are so many extra services and pastoral care issues. You don't get to take time off like everyone else. You have to lead the worship services where everyone else celebrates.

Well... it has been a bit of a different experience for me. It is only my first year as a senior pastor. It is a small church. There have certainly been a fair share of pastoral care issues. But we have less services than normal. Most people are out of town. But that is not why it has been a different experience. It is simply the fact that I have had to lead worship... and so I have had to focus continually on the spiritual aspects of the season. And the fact that I chose to step out of my normal Christmas routine and found myself embraced by a new church family as well as my old one.

So, instead of a reflection, this is a thank you. A thank you to my church and to God for shaking things up a bit this year. God tends to do that, doesn't God?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hey... focus on the donkey!

So, I was hoping to take one of those cool shots with the donkey in sharp focus leaving the background fuzzy and distant. But, unfortunately I just have a little point and shoot digital camera. Such images are rare serendipitous moments with this little camera.

But maybe... maybe the image is more appropriate for the season. We focus on what is happening in the background, on Mary and Joseph, on the birth of Jesus, just quickly glancing at the donkey before moving to the main event. But, as we've been talking about, the season is just as much about the journey as the main event. It is about the preparation, the prophecies, the pronouncements, the pregnancies (wow... those would have been great alliterations for a sermon! I'll have to remember them!)

Talking with several friends who, like me, have been on long journeys whether towards employment or vocational clarity, marriage or pregnancy, physical health or emotional recovery, Christmas is either a time to celebrate having reached a destination or a reminder that while the Christmas journey has come to an end, our own journey's continue for another year. They tell us that we should enjoy the journey, learn from the journey, listen to what God might have for us in the midst of waiting. And they are right, for the most part. But everything in our culture is about making the journey as short as possible or avoiding it all together. Be fast and efficient. Take the quick fix. Find the short cut. And we done something similar with Christmas. Squeezed a nine month long pregnancy into a four week advent season.

Perhaps we should extend the journey to Christmas a bit longer... perhaps we should try to remain on this journey. Or at the least, let's celebrate the donkey, our mascot for the journey, the one who carries us through the desert as we wait for God's word to be fulfilled in our lives.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Bit Out of Focus

So, lest you think that just because I post these spiritual reflections I am always focused on Christ this season, today is a day for a bit of confession. To be honest, I'm a mess around the holidays. I'm cranky. I'm ungrateful. I don't like hardly any of the gifts I receive. (Of course, this year has been different!) I always feel lonely. And for the most part, I focus on all the things that I don't have. I focus on the way my grown up Christmases are not the way I expected them to be. I get jealous of my relatives. I can be miserable to be with. Everything seems to get out of focus fairly regularly during the holidays.

I post... because it helps me to stay a bit more focused. I post... as a statement of faith. Not exactly what I feel at the moment, but what I know to be true, what I am trying to cling to. I post... because it means that everyday I have to look at the biblical texts for the week. I post... because even though I know that most of you would not really care that much, I would feel guilty if I didn't follow through on this public commitment. And I post... because it helps me to give throughout the Christmas season. So, to all of you who read this... even if it is only once or twice during the season... thank you. Thank you for helping me to stay focused.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Light in the Darkness

Every year, it seems, I try and take a picture of "a light in the darkness." It is such a central theme of Advent. One that we continue to carry one, even if it's true meaning is often lost in translation. But still... the Christmas lights in front of a house, the lights on the Christmas tree, the candles, the stars... All of them remind us of the hope that comes with a light in the darkness. Of the joy or comfort it can bring.

It is interesting to consider, though, how we have filled our world with false light. With neon signs and computer screens. With street lights and cell phones. It is difficult to find true darkness any more... None of these things in themselves are necessarily bad, but they so often distract us from the true light. And when you through in the light of celebrities, fame, fortune, success... we are blinded in our attempts to find the light and somehow end up more like a moth to a flame.

During these last few days of Advent, may we be able to tell the difference between the true light and our false imitations. May we perhaps for a moment shut off the cell phones and computers, the television screens and video game... May we turn away from the neon lights of the shopping malls and the decorations celebrating a holiday that often forgets its true meaning... may we allow ourselves just a moment of darkness so that we can be reminded again what true light looks like.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Without Fear

I mentioned in my last post that my friend Ileana and I headed down to the lake on Sunday to check out the winter scenery. It was freezing! Literally... temperatures well below 32 degrees. It was crazy, but with the right equipment... boots, coats, hats, gloves, scarves, we went without fear into the cold. Of course, we didn't stay too long. Our equipment was only good up to a point. And then toes and cheeks and fingers started to go numb and we quickly hurried back to the car for warmth.

In order to head out into the cold without fear, we must put on layers. We must bundle up and hide ourselves under heavy parkas and thick boots. We do all that we can to ensure that our skin does not come into contact with the cold, to ensure that we won't be hurt by the dangerous temperatures.

Our life with God is actually just the opposite. In order to draw near to God, into the holiness of God... not freezing, but often pictured as a consuming fire... we don't need to put on protective gear. We don't need the right equipment. We don't need fire proof suits and flame retardant gloves. Instead, we need to take off the layers of self-protection and sin, the layers of guilt and insecurity. We need to lay ourselves bare before God.

Zechariah, in Luke 1:77, describes it as gaining the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. In pealing away the layers of sin and guilt, we open ourselves up to receive the salvation offered by Christ. We allow Christ to be a light in the darkness and to guide us into the way of peace.

The purpose of this forgiveness, of this salvation? That we may serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness (Luke 1:74-75). During this Advent season, may we be overwhelmed by the holiness of our God. May we quake just a little in fear. For God has come among us. We are in danger of being consumed. But thanks be to God for the offer of forgiveness that allows us to approach the holy throne.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Crashing In

I finally made it down to the lake to check out the ice and snow this afternoon. It was pretty amazing. Waves had washed up over the retaining wall and onto the pathway beyond. The water coated even the dead grass with layers of ice.

What does this have to do with Advent? Not much, I'm afraid. Just the beauty of the season. Just taking a moment to reflect on the power and creativity of our God. Perhaps... perhaps you might argue that such a moment is a stepping out of the normal holiday routine, stepping out of the busyness, and pausing to be overwhelmed again with God's presence.

And perhaps I'll take a leap here... I preached this morning about the need for John the Baptist to crash into our Christmas celebrations, to knock over the Christmas tree, the step on a few packages, interrupt our singing. To declare, in the midst of all the holiday hoopla, "Repent! Believe! Prepare the way for the Lord!" As the waves crashed over the walls and pathways along the lake, so John the Baptist crashes over Christmas calling us to remember that it is all about the coming king.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Promises, Promises...

No, no, no... take a closer look. It is not a ring. Are you kidding? I can't remember the last time I was on a date... but that is for another post.

Does anyone actually tie a piece of string to their finger to remember something anymore? Now we have cell phones and PDA's and computers with built in electronic bells and whistles to remind us that we need to be somewhere. To help us remember. To help us to keep our promises.

Keeping promises... that seems to be central to Zechariah's idea of who God is. God is the one who fulfilled the promises made by the angel that Zechariah's wife would have a child in her old age. But more importantly, God is the one kept his promise to Israel. God is the one who has raised up a mighty savior just as God promised through the prophets. God is the one who shows mercy as promised to Zechariah's ancestors. God is the one who keeps oaths and honors covenants. God does not forget. God does not fail. God is faithful to do all that God promises.

Of course, it is always in God's timing... and it rarely looks like we expect it to. Who would have thought that the savior of the world would come as a little baby? Or that the kingdom of God would be something that grows over time like leaven? But... it was a pretty big promise that God kept that first Christmas Day... sending a son into this world, coming as one of us. A pretty big promise... Big enough to make me think that God keeps all that God promises.

For those of you who are doubting God's presence and God's promise this Advent season, imaging that God has a million fingers and on each one of them is a bit of string and on one of those strings is your name. God does not forget you. God is faithful.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Goo Be Gone...

You know, the more I read the Bible, the more impressed I am with the authors. It's as if they were guided by the Holy Spirit or something! As you probably know by now, my church has been focusing for quite a while on the book of Luke. And for the last month we have been in Chapter 1. Yes... I said that for the last month we have been in Chapter 1. Our entire Advent season has focused on the birth narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus found in that extremely long chapter.

As a church in the midst of revitalization, we have been talking a lot about who we are and what God has for us over the past several months. But for Advent, we have simply been trying to listen, to prepare, to open our hearts to what God might have next for our little congregation. But how, exactly, do you do that?

Such preparation involves prayer, reading scripture, developing true community, opening your hearts to the needs of the world around you, looking for where God might be at work. But it seems during this Advent season I have been led to focus on John the Baptist's message... that salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins. It comes through the nine months of listening after doubting God's word. It comes as a nation turns its heart back to the God who called them out of darkness. It comes as God's people seek to once again live out the Covenant God laid before them.

It comes from giving ourselves a good cleaning, inside and out. And that can take scrubbing, reaching into dark and dingy corners, peeling back hidden layers and forgotten messes.

May God give us the courage to continue to prepare our hearts this Advent season and to hear the words of John the Baptist, the promise that salvation comes through the forgiveness of sins.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Day of Silence

A day of silence in honor of Zechariah... looking up to the heavens and pondering what God would have us learn during this Advent season.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Silent Winter

The leaves are gone. The tree lays bare. There is little apparent growth as it lays dormant for the long winter ahead. Yet life is there, present. Healing, growth, and revitalization are taking place in the silent winter.

Zechariah faced a much longer silent winter. For nine months he could not speak. Some speculate that he could not hear either. It had happened suddenly one holy day. He was serving as the high priest leading worship when an angel appeared and let him know that even though he and his wife were well along in years, they were about to have a baby boy. Zechariah doubted the word from God and was struck mute... with nine months to ponder his doubts. Nine months to lay dormant, with little growth appearing on the surface, but inside Zechariah was growing and changing. So much so that upon the birth of his son, before he could speak, he made sure that the baby was named as the angel had said. And with that one act of faith and obedience, Zechariah's speech was restored.

We all make mistakes. Some of them big ones. We all doubt at times. And there are times there are consequences for our actions. There are times when God silences us for a while. Takes us out of the game. Asks us to sit on the sidelines for a few months. But it is not permanent. It is not necessarily a punishment. It is more of an opportunity. A chance to regroup, to ponder our faith, to restore our soul. And at the right time, we are restored. Our voice returns. And we, like Zechariah, sing forth praise to God

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Bringin' Em Down

The God that Mary sings about in Luke is one of justice and mercy. This God brings down the powerful, lifts up the humble, feeds the hungry, but sends the rich away empty handed. When I first think about such power, I think of mighty wars and battles. I think of weapons and armor. But God is so much more subtle than that. God does not work the way we do. God doesn't need powerful weapons to take out the powerful. God just needs a little snow, a little ice, maybe a trickle of water eroding the rocks on a hillside, a small microbe that can wipe out an army. God has so many ways of reminding us of God's power.

To be honest, I don't always understand God's power and justice. At times, it seems that God's justice takes far too long. At other times, God's power seems to hurt those who are most in need of justice. And the powerful and rich seem to remain just where they are. Actually, the Jewish people may have felt a similar way just about the time of Jesus' birth. They had been under the power of Rome for far too long. There seemed to be injustice everywhere. And there had been no word from God in a long time.

The people were waiting for a Messiah, for someone to rescue them. They were hoping for a king, an army, a ruler. But, of course, God came in an unexpected way and brought justice in a manner that no one could have predicted. A little baby, born to a young girl, in small town, to working class parents... And with that promise, Mary declares here faith again in the power of God to save.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Good Pride and Bad Pride

As Mary sings her song of praise to God, she declares, "God has shown strength with God's arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts." (Luke 1:51)

Does this mean that God makes those of us who are too proud a bit scatter brained... or scatter hearted?
I was reflecting on what it means for God to scatter those who are too proud. Or, to be more honest, I was reflecting on whether or not my own pride was enough for God to want to scatter me. And my reflections led me to consider what I had on and around my desk. As a congregational studies major, one of the things I have learned to do is analyze space. One walks into a church building and begins to observe who or what is given the most prominent space. What does the church convey about what it believes and what it values simply by its architecture, interior decorating, and layout? In the same way, what does my desk say about what I value? What I am proud of?

Now, it should be noted that at the moment my desk fills up the dining room of my little house. That in itself tells you something... no dining room table, but a desk that covers two walls! And on one of the walls over my desk hang two of my diplomas. My bachelor's degree in engineering is no where to be found. But my master's degree and PhD feature prominently. They are definitely things I am proud of... as I should be. But when does that pride spill over into something that God would not be proud of in me?

What is it in your life you are proud of? Perhaps the following questions, questions that I seem to need to ask myself on a regular basis, will help you to figure out if it is good pride or bad pride...

Do you think it is something you did all by yourself? Or do you constantly remember God's provision and guidance in it?

Does it make you feel better than other people? Thankful that you are not like other people? Or do you see it as a gift and do you believe that God gives gifts of equal value to everyone?

Is it something you hide or hoard away? Or is it something you share with the world?

Is it something that you feel you have a right to or are entitled to?... actually, this is at the heart of the matter isn't it. Does it make you act as if you are entitled? And if you have no idea what I am talking about, you should probably find someone to ask. Someone who is older and wiser. Or someone who is not as powerful as you are. Someone who works for you or serves you in some way.

The opposite of proud is not, I don't think, lack of self-esteem. I think the opposite of proud is grateful, thankful, humble, servant-like. God scatters those who believe they are entitle to more than others in this world. But God lifts up the lowly.

May Advent help us to enter into Christmas with an attitude of thankfulness rather than entitlement. Grateful for all that God has already done for us and continues to provide.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hail Mary, Full of Grace

When I was a child growing up in the Catholic church, I knew two prayers: The Lord's Prayer and Hail Mary. I knew that the Lord's prayer was from scripture, but I never really understood that the Hail Mary came straight from scripture as well:

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, mother of God,
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Well, at least the first half comes from right from Luke. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit declares Mary blessed. And Mary's song tells us that all generations will call Mary blessed.

To be honest, I've had a rather mixed relationship with Mary. I no longer agree with all of what the Catholic church teaches about Mary. And, to be honest, I often don't agree with what the Protestant church teaches about Mary either. We either don't talk about Mary at all, or we portray her as some passive vessel of God. I remember being taught as a new Christian that I should be meek and quiet like Mary. I should passively submit to God and to my future husband.

But the more I read about Mary, the more I am amazed at her strength, courage, and faith. To hold fast to her story despite its impossibility. To see herself not as some object used by God, but as a servant, someone making a choice to obey. To fear and ponder and exclaim. To sing a powerful song full of God's promises. To understand herself as carrying something so mighty. And to see herself as someone who would be called blessed by all generations. It is no wonder so many around the world venerate this woman. As our preacher pointed out last Sunday and as we were reminded again this morning, Mary was the first Christian, the first to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women.
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bringing Our Gifts

I'm not feeling that great tonight... so, a picture I took a few days ago of our sanctuary decorated for Advent. It is beautiful. Filled with light. Filled with hope. Filled with expectation. All those feelings for me are evoked by the image of the star over Bethlehem, but also by our small little congregation struggling through a difficult time and yet in the midst of it all gathering faithfully to worship. In many ways, they are like the magi following the star that led them to Bethlehem. Each week they bring their gifts on Sunday morning. In a church our size, just as many people are serving as are sitting in the pews during the service. There is the worship band and the A/V crew, the scripture reader and preacher, the greeter, the coffee maker, the clean up crew, the ushers and counters, not to mention the people who built Bethlehem and set up the decorations. And this week the family lighting the Advent candle and, of course, as always, the nursery workers and Sunday School teachers. By my count, that is over 25 people. All bringing their gifts to God... not just on Christmas day, but every week. Every week gathering together under the star of Bethlehem. Beautiful.

Friday, December 10, 2010

How Do You Take A Picture of This?

So, this is how I go about taking pictures each day... well, some days.

Last week at church we sang a new song by Chris Tomlin called "My Soul Magnifies the Lord." I have been singing the chorus in my head all week. I asked our worship team to sing it again this Sunday since, believe it or not, it is almost word for word out of Mary's song in Luke 1:46-49. I love when I can memorize scripture through song!

Okay, so this song has been in my head. Luke 1:46-49, Mary's song, is part of the text in our church for this coming Sunday. I want to take a picture to represent "My soul magnifies the Lord." Uh... um... what in the world does that look like?

So, I head to to look up "magnify" and find the following:
1. Rare to make greater in size, status, or importance; enlarge
2. to cause to seem greater, more important, etc. than is really so; exaggerate: to magnify one's sufferings
3. to cause to seem larger than is really so; increase the apparent size of, esp. by means of a lens or lenses
4. Archaic to glorify; praise; extol

Since I am pretty sure there is no way we can make God greater in size or importance and it would certainly be difficult to exaggerate the greatness of God, I'm going to assume that the text is using the archaic form which means to glorify; praise; or extol.

Uh... um...

Okay, to for "glorify."
1. to make glorious; give glory to
2. to exalt and honor (God), as in worship
3. to praise extravagantly; honor; extol
4. to make seem better, larger, finer, etc. than is actually the case

Again, no way to make God seem better or finer than is actually the case. But Mary does seem to praise God extravagantly. An outpouring of praise much like the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with precious oil. To be so filled with love for God, so filled with amazement at God's great works, at God's character, at who God is that it overflows in song. Song just welling up and pouring forth. I don't think worship can always be like this. Sometimes it must be an act of faithful obedience. But when it is like this... when the praise just pours forth... what a glorious experience. Ah... the word glory again.

So, what does "glory" mean?
1. great honor and admiration won by doing something important or valuable; fame; renown
2. anything bringing this worshipful adoration or praise
3. the condition of highest achievement, splendor, prosperity, etc.: Greece in her glory
4. radiant beauty or splendor; magnificence
5. heaven or the bliss of heaven
7. a halo or its representation in art
8. any circle of light

Finally... at the end of the definition of glory... something I can take a picture of... a halo or its representation in art. Just like the yellow circles of light over the head of Mary and Joseph in my nativity ornament.

So, the point of today's post? To reflect on what it means to magnify the Lord. To glorify the Lord. To give glory to God. How might we allow ourselves to stop for a moment and to dwell on the great work that God has done in sending a son into the world? How might we allow our souls to be filled and to overflow with praise and thanksgiving? How may we join with Mary in magnifying the Lord?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Spirit to Spirit

It seems that every time I get to these verses in Luke I want to try and take a picture of the Holy Spirit. For some reason I picture the Holy Spirit welling up in Elizabeth and crying out as Mary enters the room, "Blessed are you among women!" And sometimes I wish that still happened. Wouldn't be great if when you entered the room someone cried out, "Blessed are you among women!" Or at least, "Greetings favored child of God!" Of course, it is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit tends to speak the truth. I'm not sure how excited I would be if I walked into the room and someone cried, "Greetings, O one who was jealous today!" Or "Blessed are you despite the fact that you weren't very nice to people today!"

But still, it does seem to me that Elizabeth is not the only one who was filled with the Holy Spirit. Have you ever met someone and felt the Spirit leap within you? I'm not talking about being attracted to someone, though at times that may be Spirit led as well. But there are times when you just see Christ in other people the way Mary saw Christ in Elizabeth. And times when people see Christ in you. There is something to the fact that as Christians we are all filled with the Holy Spirit and that Spirit connects us all with one another. We are one in the Spirit. And that Spirit cries out to itself when it recognizes the Spirit's presence in another.

I pray that this week someone will see Christ in you and that the Spirit will cry out blessings upon you. I pray that this week you will see Christ in another and that you will cry out blessings upon them as well.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

In Search of Confirmation

"In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." Luke 2:39-40

A young girl receives a visit from an angel telling her she is about to be pregnant with God's child and the first thing she does is leave home to go visit her Aunt Elizabeth. Well, at least that is the first thing we know about. I can imagine that at this point she wondered if she was a little bit crazy. Because, really, sane people are not often visited by angels. Virgins do not often find themselves pregnant. It seems a bit crazy to believe that you will be the mother of God. How in the world did Mary process all of this? But there was Elizabeth. God said that something crazy had happened to Elizabeth as well. Not quite as crazy as what was happening to her, but pretty close.

I can imagine the relief Mary felt walking into Elizabeth's house. There was her old, barren Aunt six months pregnant. And immediately Elizabeth begins confirming what God is doing in Mary's life. Maybe it wasn't a dream after all. Maybe God really does do miracles.

When God calls us, God rarely calls us alone. God always seems to place us in community or in relationships that affirm the call. God seems to provide signs along the way affirming God's presence. Calls like the one Mary received, or like a call to ministry or missions, or a call to get married or have children, or a call to a vocation or location... God grounds these types of calls in the material reality of our world. God does not leave them just inside our own heads. This does not mean, however, that we can tell when God is speaking by a majority vote. It does mean that the church always recognizes the presence of God in someone's life and work.

It does mean that Mary was in a pretty precarious position. It was possible that she was mentally unstable... if it wasn't for the proof, the baby born who would go on the give his life for the world. In the same way, there is a fine line between our own calls and insanity. Sometimes the only way to tell the difference is to wait and see.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

God of the Big and Small

I have been thinking a lot this week about the contrast between Mary and Elizabeth. Mary was too young. Elizabeth was too old. Mary was not yet married. Elizabeth had been married for far too long. Mary was without any power. Mary was a virgin. Elizabeth was barren. Two women in many ways at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The comparison brought to mind the story of Goldilocks. You all know about Goldilocks. The young girl who breaks into the home of three bears, ransacks the place breaking furniture, eating all their food, and messing up their beds. The young girl who needs everything to be just perfect. It's too hot or too cold. It's too big or too small. Everything has to be just right.

I'm so glad God is not like Goldilocks. I'm so glad that God didn't look at Elizabeth and say, "She's too old." Or take one look at Mary and exclaim, "She's too young." And then keep looking until God found someone who was "just right." God doesn't work that way. God doesn't need us to be just the right size or shape or age. God doesn't need us to be in the right job or from the right family or have just the right set of gifts. God does not go through the world picking up this person and that saying, "This one is too big." "This one is too small." "This one is just right!" God uses all of us, vessels of all different shapes and sizes, those of us who are too big and too small, too old and too young. God uses all types of people to bring the light of Christ to the world. So don't worry... when God looks at you and considers using you for some purpose in this world... God looks at you and says "This one is just right."

Monday, December 06, 2010

Do Angels Get Confused?

On Sunday morning during my children's sermon, I talked about angels being messengers from God. As the words were coming out of my mouth, I realized how little I really know about angels... at least according to what the Bible says. I know quite a bit about what the world seems to believe.

I have the images of a beautiful man or woman in white (they are always beautiful according to worldly standards for some reason). Someone who speaks on behalf of God. A guardian who protects us. I always assume that angels have it all together. I don't think much about angels worrying about how they look or whether or not they are making a difference or if they said the right thing. I don't think about angels questioning God or confused about what's going on.

But I wonder... I wonder how the angel Gabriel felt when delivering the words to Mary that God was going to come in human form. Not angelic form... but human form. And that God was going to entrust God's infant self to the young girl confused and perplexed before the angel. What weight did the messenger carry?

What was the angel thinking? To be honest, I find it incredibly comforting that the book of Luke starts off with everyone a bit confused and overwhelmed. Zechariah doubting God. Mary confused and perplexed. And I am guessing that perhaps the angels had a few questions of their own as they delivered their messages. I am comforted because I am often confused and perplexed about what God is doing in this world and why God chose to work through people like you and me. And perhaps such confusing is not a sign of a lack of faith, but instead the first step towards seeing God do a work that is more than anything we could ask or imagine.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Pregnant Expectation

This afternoon I made empanadas for the first time. The particular type I made seemed to take forever to make! Well... just about 2 1/2 hours. Yes, last night I made tamales with the women from Sojourner and today empanadas. I am sure I am just proscratinating important work that needs to be done. But at least it is healthy, useful proscrastinating.

But proscrastinating is not the topic of this post. Rather it is the expectation... the pregnant expectation that accompanies waiting for something like an empanada to be born. Or, more to the point of the Advent season, the literally pregnant expectation of the young Mary for nine months. Mary was given a word from the Lord. A confusing word. A word that she most likely didn't fully understand. Our preacher for this morning at Sojourner, Una Lucey-Lee, did a great job of laying out all the rich details and allusions present in the angel Gabriel's words to Mary. It was all about the rich history of expectation for the Messiah. But Mary accepted the word, this word that she did not fully understand. She submitted herself to the Lord. As Una pointed out, she did not do so passively. She struggled and reasoned. She made a choice. And then she waited. For nine months she waited. For nine months she was pregnant with the word of God growing within her until it finally came forth on Christmas morning.

I must give most of the credit for this post to Una. It is an incredible blessing to be part of a church with such an excellent team of preachers. As a pastor, it is rare that I get to be preached to on Sunday mornings! Una challenged us this morning to consider what we might be waited for during this Advent season. What are the pregnant hopes and dreams within us this season? Perhaps more importantly, what word from the Lord have you received that is waiting pregnantly within you? What promise? What vision? What hope for you or for the world?

May we have the grace of Mary as we wait for the Word of God to be birthed through us this Advent season.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Pretty Garbage

So... this is a bit less tied to the Advent text for the week, but it is what I was thinking about today. This morning we awoke to the first snowfall of the year. It was beautiful! My favorite kind of snow. The kind that sticks to everything. It is actually quite odd that we associate snow with Christmas given where Jesus' birth took place. But, still...

Snow can make anything look beautiful. Even the alley behind my house. Even the garbage cans lining the streets. Snow covers everything with a clean blanket that hides all the dents and scars and garbage in the world. At least for a little while.

We use the language of being made "as white as snow" to talk about being forgiven by God and made holy. I realize that "whiteness" is a loaded concept in our society and that all to often people connect this idea with the idea of being "white" or "caucasian." The fact of the matter is, though, we are all shades of brown, orange, green, red... God does not make us all "white." God does, however, make us as clean as fresh fallen snow.

But... I was thinking today as I was looking at my beautiful snow covered trash cans, that we often settle for a blanket of snow in our lives. We like God to just cover up the garbage. We like to look pretty to ourselves, to the church, and to the world. But God desires to do something more in our lives. God desires to make us new creatures, forgiven, holy, justified. And for that, God chose to become one of us. That is the gift that began with Jesus birth.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Holding Onto the Holy

Luke 1:35... "therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God."

And you thought raising your kids was a challenge! A child holy from birth. Not just innocent. Not just perfect in the sight of their parents. But really... truly perfect. When the child Jesus wanders away from Mary and Joseph during a festival in Jerusalem and heads for the temple, what could they say? Mary and Joseph present a united front and Jesus just goes around them to a heavenly authority.

What type of person did Mary have to be? What kind of courage? What kind of self-worth? To be able to fully love her child while holding him loosely?
And who is this God of ours? Fully embodied in an innocent baby. Willing to hold on to divinity so loosely. Willing to set aside power for love?

To love what is holy... that is a challenge. To give yourself fully to one who will always be better, always be stronger, always be more perfect. To love someone whom you can only hold onto loosely.

Mary was not the only one called to love what is holy. We, too, are called to love the holy Christ child. We, too, are called to love in a way that holds others loosely while giving ourselves fully. We are to be able to love knowing that God is always present in the relationship, always a higher power that can be called upon at any moment. To love what is holy... that is the challenge of Christmas.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Odd Greetings?

Luke 1:28-29 "And he (Gabriel) came to her and said, 'Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be."

I started receiving Christmas cards this week. Of course the first included a plea for money from my college alma mater and the second was from my alderwoman. None of them have been particularly striking so far, but every once in a while I get a card that I just can't seem to figure out at all. What in the world were they trying to communicate when they picked this?

Surprisingly, this is a bit how Mary felt about the angel's greeting. She was perplexed and had to think about what the words meant. Yet the greeting, at least to me, doesn't seem that strange. In many churches, worship begins with the phrase, "The Lord is with you," and responded to with "And also with you." We assume that God is with us always and everywhere. Or at least that is what we proclaim on Sunday mornings, even if we seem to forget it during much of the week. I forget, sometimes, just how radical an idea it is that God is with us. And how much more radical it might have been for Mary. Think about the previous verses. Zechariah is a priest, one of the few people in all of Israel designated to serve in the sanctuary of the temple. One of the few people allowed to stand in God's presence. Before Christ's death on the cross, the tearing of the curtain in the temple, it was assumed that God was not always with us. At least not in the way we understand it. God was on top of the mountain, or in the inner sanctum of the temple, or present to only a few special chosen people... to the prophets and perhaps a king or two. God was not with the ordinary. It was too dangerous for God to be present all the time. The holiness would be overwhelming. It could kill you.

And yet, the angel tells the young Mary that God is with her. Not only is God with her, the power of the Most High will overshadow her. Holiness will dwell within her. And from now on, holiness will dwell with each of us.

Each season God seems to bring to mind different themes as I write these reflections. This Advent it seems to be all about the reality of God's presence with us. The overwhelming sense of the holy walking with humanity. A sense not only that God came down, but that we are more than mere flesh and blood. That there is a holiness to humanity created in God's image as we were.

God is with you this Advent season. God is with you, O favored one. May it cause us to ponder as Mary did.

(By the way, as a side note... by pop-music association for the day was Adam Ant's Goody Two Shoes... don't you just think of John the Baptist when you here the phrase "Don't drink. Don't smoke. What do you do?")

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Knit Together

Funny things happen when you are thinking about the days Advent text and listening to classic rock at the same time. Yesterday as I was pondering the announcement of Jesus birth to Mary by the angel Gabriel, the radio suddenly began blasting Mannfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light." Now, of course, the song is about a young woman on a drug trip. Not a good comparison to our fair Mary. And yet... I sometimes think people when people are using drugs (or drinking or doing extreme sports or extreme worship) they are seeking exactly what Mary experienced: an encounter with God, something otherworldly and overwhelming to the senses. And yet an encounter with God is not something that we can manufacture. It comes unexpectedly...

But of course that has nothing to do with today's photo. As you may know from following my blog in the past, I tend to take quite a lot of pictures of the sculptures lining McCormick Avenue. This particular one is by Andy Zimmerman. It is supposed to be the inside of a plant, but it made me think of what was happening in Mary's body as the angel announced that she would conceive a child. Something forming in her womb. Something being knit together. A seed developing. It is a bit overwhelming to consider. God did not just plant a tiny human version of God in Mary's womb. Instead, God knit God's self together with Mary. God became human and united with humanity in a deeply profound and physical way.

God may not dwell in each of us exactly the way God dwelled in Mary, but I wonder if the Holy Spirit does not knit itself into our bodies in the same way the seed of a child knits itself into its mother's womb. The Holy Spirit does not just dwell in us in the same way a person dwells in a house. Rather, the Holy Spirit becomes one with us, knits into us, unites with us. Conception takes place. A new creation is born. As I am sure was the case with Mary, and I am guessing is the case when a woman realizes she is pregnant, it is both terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. To be that close and connected with someone... to be that close to God. This Advent, may we open ourselves up to the God who has already drawn near to us, who dwells with us, and is knit into our very beings.