Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Not So Silent Night

Merry Christmas! I'm sorry I missed yesterday's posting, but our Christmas Eve service and Christmas Day preparations sort of snuck up on me. I have to say that I am very grateful that I have a church that allows me to make adjustments on the fly during a service... and so, when the pastor forgets a detail or two, like asking someone to take the offering, she can just call on someone from the front and they step in.

We end this advent season with a photo similar to the one from my first reflection... focusing on the baby in the manger. We ended our Christmas Eve service with the song "Silent Night," but for some reason it seems to me that the evening was anything but silent. A young girl's screams as she gives birth to her first born child. The cry of Jesus' first breath in this world as a human being. Joseph rushing about. The animals restless. A band of rowdy angels shouting "Glory to God in the Highest" right outside of town. A group of shepherds showing up unexpectedly... I just can't imagine them arriving quietly, these hard working people making their way in from tending their flocks to take a peak at this new baby.

We often imagine God in the silence. It is quite a biblical image. God coming not in the roar of thunder or the crash of lightning, but in the still small whisper. We focus many of our spiritual practices on reaching that place of quiet and solitude where we can hear God's still small voice. But I wonder if sometimes in our desire to seek quiet and solitude we miss out on the presence of God in the midst of the ordinary noise and chaos of the day.

God was just as present as Mary cried out in labor as God was in the quiet that followed. God was just as present as the heavy footsteps of the shepherds arrived as God was in the few moments of peace right after Christ's birth. God was just as present in the triumphal singing of the angels as God was in the stillness of Mary's heart pondering it all.

As we go forth in this Christmas season, may we seek to see God not just in the silence and the solitude, but in the chaos and noise of our lives. May we have eyes to see when God is speaking in the midst of our ordinary every day living and breathing. May we recognize God's presence... not just in some distant silent place or deep within us, but right there on the surface. God with us. Immanuel.

Friday, December 23, 2011

No Room

"and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:7

I spent a few hours this afternoon at the homeless warming center that my church hosts on Fridays. We sat around and watched movies, ate popcorn, played checkers, and talked about sports and travels.

One of the men asked again if we had work for him. Which we don't. He has been looking for months.
One of the women showed me a final notice for the storage space she left all her belongings in back home in Georgia before coming up here to look for work. It goes up for auction in a few weeks.
Another is hoping to get into an apartment soon, but he doesn't have proper id yet and with his criminal record he is finding it difficult to get work.
Many speak of family they left behind, or who left them behind... the pain caused by one or the other was too much.

I realize that things are much more complicated than they appear on the surface, but still... I wonder about a world that leaves so many people out in the cold. Where addiction and mental illness can leave one alone and homeless for weeks, months, or even years. Where one can lose a job and then lose everything because there are no more to be found.

I wonder about Mary and Joseph... ending up alone in a barn to give birth to their firstborn. Forced by the government to travel to Bethlehem for a census. Didn't Joseph have relatives who also had to go to Bethlehem? Couldn't they have helped him find a place to stay? Welcomed them in when they arrived? Looked out for a young girl who was 9 months pregnant making a difficult journey?

And Mary's family... was there no one to travel with them? Where was her mother? An aunt or a sister? Did they have to leave her on her own?

Mary and Joseph, it seems to me, were alone and without resources when Jesus was born. The first sign that this Messiah was one who would walk with those on the margins, reaching out to the poor and working class, the homeless and the alone. His first visitors a group of scruffy shepherds making their way in from the fields. The second a group of foreign dignitaries, not even Jewish!

May our eyes be opened up to those who are left in the cold this Christmas season. To those who are without work or without family. To those who are living far from home. To those to whom the world says, "there is no room for you at the inn."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Songs of Justice

I remember first learning "Where Justice Rolls Down" at CHiC (our denominational triennial youth conference) quite a few years ago. Perhaps what I remember most vividly is thousands of teenagers jumping up and down singing at the top of their lungs about a longing for God's justice in this world. I wonder how many of us really understood what we were singing about?

I didn't realize at the time how unique that song was. But now, after trying to choose contemporary music for worship services over the last year and a half, I recognize how rare it is for contemporary musicians to write about justice. Or several other key theological ideas, for that matter. We've tried to find songs about our ecclesiology, about how we relate to one another as Christians, about forgiveness of other people not just asking God to make us "whiter than the snow." If I had been choosing hymns, I'm not sure I would have found many more justice oriented songs and while there are few more about the church, there still seems to be vast areas that are missing.

What caused this particular shape to our musical vocabulary? When did we move so far away from scripture? From the full scope of the Psalms? From the songs of Miriam and of Mary?

Mary, after the tremendous greeting she received from Elizabeth and the baby, John, in her womb, after the affirmation that God is at work in her own pregnancy, breaks forth in worship... a song that sings of God's might and justice.

"My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior... He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but the sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:46b, 47, 52-53)

May our songs of worship reflect the full breadth of God's character and our life together as Christians. Cries for justice. Laments for our sin. Pleas for grace and mercy. Praise and thanksgiving. What it is to be the church and the people of God... especially as we draw close to Christmas... in Mary's honor.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More Leaping Needed

Okay... I realize it may not look like it... but really... it is a jump. It is supposed to be a leap, but I live in a small flat and my back has been bothering me and I am actually quite reserved about such things, so even a jump like this is quite expressive for me. But it is in homage to one of my favorite scenes in all of scripture:

"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." (Luke 1:41)

I'm not sure why the moment captures me so. Is it the unbridled joy that Elizabeth and John (in the womb!) express in the presence of Christ (in the womb!). That little spark of life in Elizabeth responding with such joy to that little spark of life in Mary. John seems to live his whole life that way. Over the top expressiveness... in the clothes he wore, the food he ate, his hygiene, his preaching, his devotion to Jesus.

I wish I had a little more of that in my life. Apparently I was a bit like that as a child... even perhaps with the same lack of social skills as John seemed to exhibit. Perhaps I should have just started preaching repentance to those bullies in junior high! What I wish most is that I would be able to recognize the presence of Christ in the same way that John did. I wish that... in spite of all the suffering and evil in the world, in spite of all the things I struggle with, in spite of unanswered prayers both big and small, I wish that I would just leap for joy in the presence of Christ more often.

That is my prayer for this Advent Season, for Christmas, for Epiphany, for the coming year. May God open me up to leap for joy more often, to celebrate the divine presence of Christ in this world.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kick Butt Angels

""When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: 'Do not be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard.'" (Luke 1:12-13)
"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.'" (Luke 1:20-21)

"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified." (Luke 2:8-9)

For some reason, I don't think angels are quite how we picture them... the angels I have on my tree play cellos and sing sweet songs. They are always smiling and often look like children.

You would expect people to respond with oohs and aahs when an angel appears. An "Oh, how cute!" or "Isn't she adorable!" Instead, people fall down on their knees trembling in fear. Terrified. Often afraid to speak or move.

When I was traveling with friends in Guatemala, we saw statues of angels that seemed a bit more appropriate... we called them "kick butt" angels. One of them is pictured below. They wore armor and carried weapons and arrived with power and might.

We have domesticated angels. Made them our pets, our fairy godmothers, sweet friends that sit on our shoulder and speak words of encouragement. And perhaps they do some of that... watch over and encourage. But more often, they come bearing news from God... a plan that is about to be revealed, a child that will be born, a new king who will arrive and change everything.

They arrive telling us that we are about to take part in God's plan of redemption for this world. And that it may not be easy... for Zechariah it meant months of silence followed by the birth of a son who was beheaded when he was still a young man. For Mary, pregnancy out of wedlock, a son who would soon leave home to follow his calling, and bearing witness to the scourging and crucifixion of her son. For the shepherds... well, that seems to have gone a bit better.

Have we domesticated God as well? God, the great Santa Claus bearing gifts and good cheer? God, our own personal Jesus, answering all our prayers, always encouraging us and affirming all that we say and do?

This Christmas, may we remember that the birth of Jesus requires the same response as Zechariah, Mary and the Shepherds had before the angels... fear, trembling, awe, and great rejoicing that God's presence invites us into God's redemptive work in this world.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Serving in the Midst of Doubt

Our church has finished its series on the prophecies in Isaiah... so my reflections this week will move to the pre-Christmas stories in Luke.

I have to admit that the text I picked for this morning has more to do with where I am at than with an appropriate text for this close to Christmas.
"Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years." (Luke 1:6-7)

I am having a "feel sorry for yourself because of all the waiting in your life" kind of day. Frustrated at the long wait to find the right job after finishing my doctoral degree. Waiting for people to realize that even though I don't fit the current models of professors, I might actually do a good job! Frustrated at waiting for enough healing or for the right person or for God's timing or for whatever else has kept me single so long. Wishing I knew how much of it was me, how much is society, and how much is God. Frustrated that my biological clock is ringing incessantly and adoption takes so long... that I waited so long thinking I was waiting for something else to happen first...

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth should in some ways give me hope. They had done nothing wrong. Zechariah served among the high priests. Elizabeth was upright, observing all the Lord's commandments. And yet they were considered cursed... or at least not blessed... by God because Elizabeth was barren (at least they assumed it was Elizabeth).

I wonder if Zechariah and Elizabeth were even praying for a child anymore? They were past child-bearing years. Did they still cry out to God each night? Or was their prayer something different... something deeper. The faithfulness to walk forward one day at a time. To continue keeping the Lord's commandments and regulations. Zechariah's willingness to continue leading in worship and prayer, to step into the holy of holies. Zechariah, serving faithfully, yet still doubting when God appears with a promise.

It gives me hope that faith doesn't always have to be something I feel. It does not always have to be something I even believe or trust in a the moment. It does, however, ask of me to keep walking forward in faith. To live out what I cannot for the moment feel.

Advent is not always about a feeling. It is sometimes... God does want us to feel hope, to believe, to trust. But sometimes, instead, Advent is about an action. About walking faithfully in the darkness. Holding on to what appears like a sliver of light... yet it is the light of the world. And holding on to that light will lead you into bright shining joy.

Oh... and the picture... it has very little to do with the reflection. Though they do remind me of the rosary and of the way praying the rosary is a way to continue walking faithfully even in times of doubt and darkness.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holding Out Hope

Our preacher this morning, Una Lucey-Lee, did a wonderful job finishing up our Advent series on the prophecies regarding Jesus found in Isaiah. She spoke of the ridiculous nature of the promise given in Isaiah 9 (and 7...) to Ahaz... faced with war on all sides, God promises a baby. And Ahaz must hold out hope until the baby arrives.

The baby will grow into a king. And Ahaz must hold out hope until the baby grows into this king.

The king will just be a sign of the eternal king to come, Jesus. And God's people must hold out hope until that eternal king arrives.

And that king will be born as a baby. And God's people must wait for that baby to grow into a king.

And that king will give his life for us and promise to return. And God's people today must hold out hope for that return.

Advent is about holding onto hope.

My mom sent me a baby blanket she made for me while I was in high school. I am assuming she was thinking of some far off future event at that time! Holding out hope until her baby grew into a mature young woman. And though that woman is now in her 40's, still single and without children, she still holds out hope.

And as I enter into the adoption process, she sends the sign of that hope to me. And we all once again hold out hope for the arrival of a baby.

Friday, December 16, 2011

What if Mary was A Man?

"... and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isa. 9:6b)

God as Father... it is a central image in scripture that becomes even more prominent around Christmas time. After all, Mary was the mother of Jesus... God was the Father. And Jesus himself is in this passage called "Everlasting Father."

Is God called Father because God is male? Or is God more like a man? Or is a man more like God than a woman? Most people... not all, but most... would strongly oppose these ideas. We are all created in the image of God. God is neither male nor female.

But why did God have to choose to be the Father in this Christmas scenario? Why not the mother? I have been thinking about this a bit today. Most of what I have thought about is significant, but perhaps a bit too graphic for my blog. But if God was the mother of Jesus, physically, then God would have had to preexist as a woman... an adult womb was needed for the little fetus Jesus to grow into a baby. It is a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario. Which came first? And it seems that it is extremely significant for the incarnation that Jesus' life began just like any other human being, at conception.

Having said that... it is Mary's act that seems to me so reflective of who God is. Bearing life... carrying life within her and giving birth to a new creation. Becoming one with God, knit together in the womb, providing sustenance out of her own being. Isn't that so much of who God is? The life giver? The one who feeds and nourishes us? The one who gives birth to new life, who creates and recreates?

The Everlasting Father, the Mother who gives birth to new life, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Why Don't You Lead Already?

"For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders..." (Isa. 9:6)

Jesus... you were born with authority, the power to rule, the right to be king, to ability to overthrow governments and uphold justice and righteousness. So, what happened? Why don't you get to it? Why don't you just take control? Step in? Use your supernatural abilities? Change the created order? Rule, why don't you!

Oh, wait... I think maybe that is what they were shouting about on Palm Sunday. Jesus didn't seem to be ruling the way they wanted. There was no revolution. No end of Roman oppression. No visible immediate kingdom here on earth, at least nothing that we could recognize.

God doesn't seem to rule that way. So frustrating at times! And yet... to realize that God has entrusted so much to us, that God desires to work in and through us, that somehow God and I, we are in this together. Perhaps that was part of the point of the incarnation? That we are in this together. That God loves us, trusts us, wants us to live into who we have been created to be... humanity in God's image, male and female, with power and dominion, to lead all of us under God's loving care.

All authority rests upon the baby Jesus... and he uses it to empower us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bringing Justice at Christmas

I had the chance to spend part of the day wrapping presents today at the YWCA. The presents were going to children who were currently living with their mother's in a home for those fleeing from domestic abuse.
Today I saw a report on the news that one in five women in the United States has experienced rape and one in four have experienced domestic partner violence.
When I speak on advocacy for women in ministry, I often hear people claim that women are no longer the victims of sexism or anything else in the United States.
And the statistics around the globe are even more frightening.

"... they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian." (Isaiah 9:3b-4)

Christ came to bring righteousness and justice in our world, to bring redemption, joy and peace. May we work to do the same this Advent Season.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Terrifying Joy

"You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder." (Isaiah 9:3)

"Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.'" (Luke 2:9-10)

Joy to the World, the Lord is come... Let earth receive her king! We sing this song every Advent and Christmas season. Though it should be something we sing all year round. But reading through Isaiah has reminded me of the strange way that joy and terror can sometimes go hand in hand. For the coming of the Lord is nothing less than pure holiness entering into our world. Pure holiness entering into the imperfect beautiful and awful mess that is humanity. It should terrify us, being in the presence of the holy. But, of course, that is the joy of it all... the fact that we are not consumed, that we stand in God's presence and yet live, that God walked among us and did not destroy us but instead brought light and life.

I'm not sure I quite understand the holiness of God... not really. Not in the way the shepherds did. Terrified, yet falling to their knees in worship. I'm not sure I could actually live in that knowledge day to day. It would be marvelous and exhausting all at the same time. To know your own sinfulness, even if it is forgiven, in the presence of the holy. I suppose in many ways that is what the promise of heaven is all about... to be so transformed that we can stand with the cherubim and seraphim around the throne singing praises to God in complete joy. And, of course, that is what is accomplished with the coming of Christ into the world.

Joy to the world... the Lord is come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

What's so bad about being in the dark?

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined." (Isaiah 9:2)

The general interpretation of this text assumes that dark is a bad thing and light is a good thing. That all people want to move from darkness to light. That light will lead people out of the darkness of their lives...

Now, I am not a big fan of the dark. In fact I have always been quite scared of the dark. It took me years to live alone without waking up in panic during the night... and sometimes I still wake up afraid. But, to be honest, these days I kind of wish I could live a bit more in the dark.

I have always envied those people who could walk through life oblivious to what is going on around them... always in the dark, so to speak, but seemingly much happier than I am. I, unfortunately, see things... when things are wrong, when someone is angry, when their is hurt or sorrow, when injustice is taking place.

Well... most of the time. As a white person in the United States I have become painfully aware that most of us have lived most of our lives in the dark about much that takes place in the world. I have worked hard to educate myself about issues of racism, sexism, classism, and other injustices taking place in the world around me. I have read about and experienced systems that discriminate against people... occasionally against me for my gender... more often against others for a wide variety of reasons. I continue to try to enlighten myself on these issues, make myself more aware of where they reside both in the world and in my own life.

It seems to be a part of faithfully growing as a disciple of Christ. Allowing God to continually enlighten you, to reveal to yourself the sin present in your own life and in the world around you. The light shines not only to reveal the good, but to reveal the bad.

And so... to be honest, there are times I want to flee back into the darkness. The light hurts my eyes... and my ears and my heart.

During this Advent Season, God grant me the courage to stay in the light, to move deeper into the light, to have the courage to continue walking forward with eyes wide open knowing that in doing so I will come to know you and all you care about in a deeper way.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Garter Belt of Faithfulness?

"Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins." (Isaiah 11:5)

Isaiah speaks of one God will send who will bring justice and peace to the entire created order. The Spirit of the Lord will be upon this person and they will be characterized by righteousness and faithfulness. Righteousness will be the belt around his waist... outwardly all will see this persons righteousness. It will be like an accessory to all they wear. A belt around their waist. I love the fact that commentaries describe faithfulness as his undergarment. If the he was a she, it would be a garter belt of faithfulness.

It seems that central to this text is the idea that the insides and the outsides of this person will match. They will do the right thing for the right reason, faithfulness to God. Their outward actions will be a reflection of their relationship with God.

If someone were to look into the wardrobe of my life, what would they find? What characteristics do others see in me? Do they reflect an understanding of a God who is just and merciful? And what characteristics are hidden beneath it all? What are those core values that direct all that I do? Is it faithfulness to God? Or something else? How often am I truly motivated by a desire to be faithful to God?

Thankfully we don't have to dress ourselves. God promises to cloth us in righteousness, giving us new garments to reflect a new life in Christ. May I allow God to cloth me in righteousness and faithfulness this Advent season.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Oh Christmas Tree...

I'm a big fan of trees. Especially in the winter. There is something about the bare branches that I find strong and beautiful. They seem to represent life and hope. Renewal and second chances. Each winter they seem to almost die only to be resurrected again in the spring full of new leaves and new life.

Trees serve a similar purpose in Isaiah. They are a sign of resurrection, new life and new hope... even if they are first the sign of Assyria's power. The great oaks that are eventually leveled as a sign of God's judgment. Leveled after Assyria showed its power by leveling the trees of Israel and Judah. Leveling. Destroying. Burning over. Attempting to wipe out all life and sustainability.

But among the ruins, a shoot emerges. God who brought judgment in the end leaves a remnant, a stump that will once again bring life.

Trees. A sign of hope. Of renewal. Of second chances. Of the faithfulness of God to trim and cut back. Passing judgment. Yet never destroying. And one day, finally... everlasting renewal. That is the promise of Christmas.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Help Me to See the Invisible

"... and He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears, but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth." (Isaiah 11:3b-4)

Learning how to discern right from wrong, truth from fiction... to make decisions and pass judgments has been one of the harder things I've had to learn how to do as a pastor or as an academic dean of students. The passage from Isaiah cautions us against judging by what we see or what we hear. Isaiah recognizes that our sight and our hearing are often clouded by prejudice, power, or cultural assumptions. And in a day and age when images and sounds can be so easily manipulated by technology, it has become even more true that what we see and what we hear are not always the best basis for a decision. Often we have only the partial truth, only one side of the story, only our limited understanding.

In the end, of course, God is the only one who can pass judgment on anyone. And yet each day we must make decisions about people, we decide between right and wrong, we act justly or unjustly... to the best of our ability. What can this text teach us? The first previously reminds us that we must rely on the Holy Spirit, that we need to listen to God, to know God, to be in relationship with God so that God may lead and guide us.

This verse reminds us that in whatever we do, whatever decisions we make, we must do so with an eye to those in need, the poor of the earth. We must strive to see those the world would render invisible. We must not let power, prestige or position impact our decisions. Those in power should not face less consequences because "they have more to lose." We must protect those without power even though the world tells us they have less worth. All people are created in the image of God. God values all people equally... perhaps even raising up those who seem to be less in the eyes of the world.

This week, Lord, open my eyes to those who have been invisible in my life, to those I have forgotten or ignored. May my decisions be informed by a care and concern for all God's people, especially those in need.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

A Balance of Power

"The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him-- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and power, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord." Isaiah 11:2

The text I am working with this week in Isaiah begins by telling us that a new king will be coming and then goes on the describe this king in the words listed above.

As a pastor, I am by no means a king... a shoot of Jesse... a savior to my people. But I love the pairings that describe this king's rule and they seem appropriate for pastoral leadership as well. Actually, they seem appropriate for all of us. And I think it is how they go together that is so important.

It is not enough to be wise... to think deeply or have all the right things to say... you must also have understanding. I can't prove that this is what it means in the Hebrew text, but it seems to mean that wisdom can in some ways be an abstract idea, it is something that at times sounds lofty or distant. Understanding, however, seems to be rooted, connected to the world around us. We must be wise without ever losing touch with people and the reality of their circumstances. Wisdom must be connected with care for and love for people.

It is not enough to recognize your power as a leader... pastor's do have some power by virtue of their position, their training, their calling. But that power must always be tempered by counsel, by a willingness to listen to others. I would argue that we must believe that the Spirit is moving through the congregation and we must be attentive to that as leaders. Otherwise we abuse our power.

It is not enough to have knowledge. We can read all the books we want. We can learn Greek and Hebrew. We can know theology and history and memorize every key text in the Bible... but if we do not fear the Lord, if we do not believe that God is a living being that we are in relationship with, if we do not understand God as both loving and Holy, then our knowledge is empty and useless.

And I don't think this is a word just for pastors... I think it applies to parents, spouses, friends, supervisors... maybe all of us. Because these ways of being... wisdom, understanding, counsel, power, knowledge, and fear of the Lord... they are not just for a few, but the gift of God to all people through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who is the Lion?

"The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them." Isaiah 11:6

We discovered recently that a homeless man was sleeping on the back porch of our church community house. As we've talked about how to respond, we've decided we have to ask him to leave. We wish we could just give him a security t-shirt and call him the night watchman or something, but we are just not sure what else to do.

I'm sure many of you will have ideas about how to respond, but my reflections for tonight have more to do with the passage for today. A picture of the peaceable kingdom, a future God promises where the aggressive and the meek with live together in peaceful harmony, where the powerful and the vulnerable can lie down together without fear, where we can follow the idealistic innocence of a child. As a reflect on this neighbor of ours who has moved in, I wish for that day. A day when all will have clothing and shelter. A day when there will be no need to fear one another. A day without violence and without want.

As I think about our homeless neighbor, I wonder which one of us is the lion and which the lamb? It seems that in this particular passage, God's main concern is to protect the poor and the needy, the bring about justice for the weak and the vulnerable. So I am left to wonder, am I the lion? Are we the wolf? The leopard? The powerful and aggressive?

God help us to bring about this just kingdom...

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Stump Remains

This last spring we had to dig up two big beautiful trees that were located along the south side of our house. I hated doing it. The trees were beautiful... well, to us they were. Even if one of them had lost most of the top branches, was pretty lopsided, and served as a home for quite a few different creatures. But they had to come down... they were sick and dangerous. Essentially hollow on the inside. A fertile home for insects, but in danger of toppling over during the next big storm.

When we had them taken out, we had them dig up the stump as well, leaving nothing behind. We didn't want any new growth from the stumps, no shoots sprouting up. And no roots continuing to make their way into our plumbing and under our foundation.

In Isaiah 11, it seems that God has recently had to do a little pruning of his own. It seems that God's people have once again sinned against God. They have turned away, trusted their enemies, worshipped idols. In a way, they were a tree that had become sick on the inside, dying, providing a home for all sorts of creatures that didn't belong there.

God needed to do some pruning, to cut back the dead branches. The pruning was quite drastic, right down to the stump. But... the stump did remain... and out of the stump a new shoot emerged. God cuts back the dead branches not to dig up the tree, but to allow new growth to emerge. "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." (Isaiah 11:1)

God seems to need to prune us occasionally. At times it is the nice gentle spring pruning that allows new growth to emerge. At other times, everything needs to be cut back to the stump. But still, it is a pruning... it is for the purpose of new growth.

May I embrace the pruning God might have for me this year. And may I not stray so far as to need to be cut back down to the stump. And... thank you, Lord, for always giving us second chances, for calling us to account, pruning our lives, but always allowing for new growth to emerge.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

God Honoring Abundance

It has been dreary and raining most of the day... so an older picture will have to suffice for my last entry on Isaiah 7:10-25. The themes throughout the week have been on signs and promises, abundance and provision. And, of course, the way God's plans in these areas are often not ours...
I have been thinking about God's image of abundance... of a land flowing with milk and honey. Of having so much milk that once could eat curds every day (not necessarily my top choice!) I find it interesting that what is promised is not meat or seafood, not grains, fruit, or vegetable, but milk and honey. Two items that God's creatures provide to nurture their young. That flow in abundance when there is safety and security and enough food to eat. That are an overflow of God's provision, honey and milk replenishing themselves regularly. That, if we are not overly greedy, nature can provide for us as a gift without sacrifice.

Somehow it seems to be a much better picture of abundance than I usually come up with. Abundance that is in perfect balance... all of the created order sharing together. Food that is given by nature rather than wrenched from it. It causes me to reflect on where my abundance comes from. Or, perhaps at Christmas, where do my Christmas gifts come from? And my food? My holiday clothes and decorations? Are they made in ways that reflects a respect for and partnership with others and with creation? Or are they made with unfair labor practices? Do they require the inhumane treatment of people or animals? Does the appearance of abundance at Christmas come at a cost? Or is it a sign of this rich blessing from God?

I don't know... it is just a thought.

Friday, December 02, 2011

A Sign to the Abandoned

My reflections this week have focused on Isaiah 7:10ff... the passage where God promises to give Ahaz the sign of a child born to a virgin and named Immanuel. The sign is meant to point to peace and prosperity for Ahaz and his country despite enemies quickly closing in.

I've been trying to imagine what it was like to live in Ahaz's time... with enemies always threatening at the borders. A small nation always at the mercy of the next way of conquerors that made their way through the land. Well... not always at their mercy. The history of Israel is full of ups and downs, triumphs and victories, devastating losses and exile. When I read about it on paper, it seems as if things were always changing, always uncertain, always in flux.

And while that may have been the case, I wonder if the people experienced it that way? There must have been generations who felt sure that their prosperity would never end. There must have been others who were convinced that they would always suffer, always live under the threat of violence, always struggle to survive.

There are certainly people today who constantly live under the threat of violence, always suffering, always struggling to survive. Countries constantly at war. Communities constantly at risk. Families where violence is a constant threat. What might a sign mean to them? Would it bring hope? Would it reassure them that they are valued, even loved? Would it remind them of their own worth and dignity? And would that empower them... or make the struggles even more unbearable?

I have no answers in tonight's post... just the photo of an abandoned green house that I pass by every day. A reminder of all those who feel abandoned. That the sign promised to Ahaz is a sign for them.

And perhaps a challenge to God's people. God provided the sign. Perhaps we are to be a part of the fulfillment. Perhaps we are the ones who are to bring about the time of peace, prosperity and abundance for all people. For all people... not just our family or our neighbors. Certainly not just for our own little corners of the world. But for all people.

I think that may require a bit more sacrifice than I have been making lately. A bit more courage. A bit more reckless faith. May God light the way this Advent season.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

That's not what I asked for...

As I said, I've been focusing a lot on the sign aspect of this passage. About sending a baby to solve a war. I wish I could say that I would have received God's sign graciously. But if my normal patterns in life are any indication... I would have thrown a fit! A tantrum. Pleaded and cried and screamed. That's what I usually do these days when God doesn't answer my prayers.

I think I have always been a bit like this. I was never a gracious gift receiver. If I didn't like it, if it wasn't what I wanted, if it seemed to indicate that the person didn't know me at all... it showed all over my face. The grimace. The frown. The questioning look. Then, of course, I would pull it together, smile and say thank you.

I've worked on it all my life... trying to be more gracious, more grateful, more thankful. But I fall sometimes. Not just with people, but with God.

If I was Ahaz, I would have been yelling, "God, I don't need another sign! I know you are gracious. I know you are loving. I know you are faithful. I know. I know. I know. But what I really need right now is for you to fix this. For you to do your miracle thing. For you to answer my prayer... they way I want you to. Seriously... a sign? What good is that going to do me? The answer may not even happen until after I am dead and gone!"

May this year be different. May I be a bit more gracious. May I be a bit more thankful. May I receive what God offers. May I recognize that the signs point to promises that are far greater than anything I could ask for. May I find you sufficient and rest in you.