Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thoughts for the First Sunday after Christmas

Sunday, December 28: First Sunday after Christmas
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
stormy wind that does what God says!
Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
fruit trees, and every single cedar!
Do the same, you animalswild or tame
you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
you princes and every single ruler on earth!
 ~Psalm 148:7-11

Read Psalm 148
So, how’s your Christmas season going? Do you feel like Christmas is already over and done with? Are you recuperating from a season of overabundance and overindulgence that seems long past, already?

Well, Christmas isn’t over yet! In the church, the Christmas season doesn’t even begin until December 25th, and it lasts until January 6th, the day we observe Epiphany, the celebration of when the magi arrived to meet Jesus. When the radio stations cut off their Christmas music cold turkey on the 26th, though, and when people we love leave us or we have to leave them, due to work or school schedules, the season of Christmas doesn’t seem all that great. Yet our in our psalm for today, the psalmist exhorts all things to praise God...even the snow and storms (it’s already snowed twice this fall, as I’m writing this, and I am so not happy about that!). I find it unexpected for snow to be mentioned in a psalm, and I’m not entirely sure how I think the snowstorm praises God, but if the psalmist says the snow should praise God, along with sea monsters and ocean depths and, well, every creature on earth, then I guess even when Christmas seems like it’s all over and done with, and I’m tired and would like just a little more time to see family or to sleep in, or maybe even for Sunday to hold off for a few more days, I still better find a way to praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!

Prayer: O Great God, teach us how to praise you when we are caught up in the joy of Christmas and when Christmas seems to have passed us by and left us feeling tired and empty. Remind us that you are always worthy of our praise. Amen.

When Ordinary and Extraordinary Collide

“Where Ordinary and Extraordinary Collide”
Christmas Eve 2014
Luke 2:1-20

Did you get all your decorating done? Did you make everything extra-special this year? Was this a year you went out of your way to make Christmas extraordinary, for you and whomever else you’re celebrating with? You know, it’s amazing what you can buy to get ready for Christmas! Candle companies have really cashed in on our need to decorate and involve all the senses in our celebrations. They seem able to manufacture and capture in wax any kind of emotion or idea—there are scents called “Christmas Memories” and “White Christmas” (a scent we might be wishing for this year!) and even “Home for the Holidays”! Who knew you could bottle all that and sell it?! But we do a lot to make our holiday experiences extraordinary, don’t we? We might find some soft music to play in the background, while people gather and eat. We may set up our nativity scenes so that all the characters are placed just so, looking on in love and wonder at the beautiful newborn baby in the manger. Doesn’t it make you feel good, just to think about it?! There’s just something we really enjoy about making these ordinary, dark winter days feel extraordinary, with all our holiday trappings.
When I read the gospel of Luke, I wonder sometimes about how ordinary so much of the story and so many of the characters were. I’m thinking about making my own Christmas scented candle collection, with scents such as “Shepherd,” “Sheep,” “Manger,” and “Labor and Delivery.” Those might not be top sellers, though…It seems like sometimes we want to forget just how ordinary the birth of Christ was, in many ways. Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem—and Luke doesn’t actually tell us about any inn or innkeeper, or that Mary really had the baby right away when they got there, no matter what our traditions say. Perhaps they’d been staying in the crowded home of a distant relative and there was no room in the guestroom (what the actual Greek word means). The story doesn’t mention animals, just a manger—probably in a part of the house where animals were fed and kept at times, but maybe not on this particular day. We just don’t know. They were so ordinary, these people from Galilee—and probably poor; definitely unknown to most of the world. We like to make the story seem peaceful and serene, sterile and idyllic, warm and fuzzy. But, well, it kind of wasn’t. It was just…ordinary.
Then there were shepherds. Right about the time Mary and Joseph had gotten situated, trying to figure out what to do with this new baby that they had to set in the feed trough because there was no cradle, here came some shepherds. (Let’s imagine what that smelled like!) Nobody had invited them—not Mary, not Joseph, not anybody else who might have been there for the birth (though scripture doesn’t even mention a midwife or anybody helping with the delivery). The shepherds were ordinary riff-raff, hustling through the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a sign they’d been told to go and find. That’s just weird! (In my humble opinion, smelly strangers are not who you want to see just after you’ve had a baby!)
But with the entrance of the shepherds, we get to the more-than-ordinary part of the event. You see, God didn’t send out a lot of invitations to this party. Very few people even realized anything extraordinary was happening on that particular night in Bethlehem. With all the ordinariness of the mother and father, of the shepherds and sheep, of the humble manger, there was also something cosmically extraordinary going on. It wasn’t a silent night—not by any stretch of the imagination! It wasn’t peaceful and serene. I imagine Mary did not have on a clean, pressed, pristine blue gown, like we so often picture her. Joseph probably did not just look on in angelic wonder—at least, not after Mary told him to help her out. The child, if he was like everybody else’s child, probably did not just chill in the manger, cooing softly and looking cherubic. The shepherds were not clean-cut and well-groomed.
So, no, it was not a silent night, in the house where Mary and Joseph were. But it was also not a silent night out there in the fields, where we might most expect it to be so. There was no soft instrumental music playing. The ground was hard. The sheep smelled bad. The night was dark. Ordinary. Earthy. The way we expect things to be. Then, BAM! Ordinary and extraordinary collided in a huge, magnificent, and maybe even scary way—right there, before the shepherds’ eyes! Suddenly, they were invited into a story that nobody saw coming, save for Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and John (though he was still an infant, himself). Everybody else who had met up with an angel already knew something was up, but that’s it. There was no other warning. Suddenly, before the shepherds’ eyes, there was an angel, who scared them half to death (probably nothing like any of the angels that are hanging on your Christmas tree right now!)! The angel gave them a crazy message, then the whole sky was filled with angels singing—how raucous must that have been? It’s no wonder the shepherds left their sheep, is it?! An ordinary night suddenly became extraordinary, and they had to do something—they had to go and see this thing, which the Lord had made known to them! They had to go and see! Nothing would be quite the same again, when ordinary and extraordinary collided, right there, in the middle of the sky, over some lonely sheep pastures outside of Bethlehem!
So we come together on this ordinary night—on a date we have chosen and set aside to celebrate the birth of the most extraordinary baby ever born. We have done our best to make the day extraordinary—we may have gone to great lengths to do so, and we may have made our own traditions, tried to gather as much family around us as possible, held back nothing for this celebration. Perhaps we are right to do so. It is truly the most extraordinary story, brought to us by the most ordinary people. Why not make the day special? Why not spend time sharing the good news of great joy, which shall be to all people? Why not celebrate this moment where ordinary and extraordinary collide to bring us the news that salvation has come?

Let us celebrate, then! We may not have been one of the first whom God invited into the story. In some ways, we are the last to receive invitations into the story of Christmas. But indeed, that baby placed in a feed trough has become our bread—the bread of life. That baby born so lowly has become our Lord and King. And Christ invites us now to join in the story—to join in the feast—to celebrate the newborn King and the King who will come again, as we gather at his table, where ordinary and extraordinary collide, where bread and wine become body and blood, where grace is poured out freely and salvation is what’s on the menu. Come, join the feast. Your invitation has come!

2014 Longest Night Thoughts

Here are the thoughts I shared during my Longest Night of the Year Service last Sunday, the 21st. This is one of my favorite services of the year. It is similar to the "memory tree service" I preached at earlier in the month, so if this sounds like something you've already read on this blog, that could be why...

“When the Silence is Ended”
Longest Night of the Year Service 2014
Luke 1:5-25, 67-79

I wonder what it was like for Zechariah, those long months when he couldn't speak. I kind of think he got a bum rep. I mean, he probably never really expected to meet a messenger from the Lord when he went into the Lord’s sanctuary. We may not want to admit it, but I bet we can relate to that: if nothing too disruptive happens during worship and we get through it all, then it’s just fine (our Pentecostal friends would probably disagree with us on that!).
So there he was, just doing his job—and doing the dangerous part of it, I might add! And poof, the last thing he ever expected in the world happened—an angel of the Lord appeared. Who wouldn't have been a bit skeptical? How many years had Zechariah been doing this? Not only had he never seen an angel before, but maybe he also wondered if God had ever heard his prayers at all. He sure never had a child to show for all those years of praying and waiting for one!
Anyway, I wonder what went through his mind during all those months of silence, imposed on him by the God he had spent his life serving. Doesn't it just seem unfair? Wouldn't we all have had a few questions for any angel of the Lord that showed up in front of us?
There’s a lot that seems unfair to us. In fact, there are a lot of things about this life that leave me speechless. You may not believe it, but I have found myself silenced, in the face of terribly tragedy. When children are mowed down by gunfire in their classrooms, when Christians and others are beheaded in cold blood and the video posted online for all to see, when people destroy others’ lives in senseless acts of violence, when disease and disaster ravage families and countries, I feel silenced by the horror of it all. When I think of all the families I’ve grieved with this year, sometimes I feel silenced by the loss. It is too much to believe, sometimes.
On this, the longest night of the year, I feel that we may be silenced by much. Most of the time, what silences us is not good and surprising news, like Zechariah experienced, though we may be overjoyed into speechlessness at times, too. Life rarely goes how we expect it to. This time of year, emotions seem to run high, memories and feelings are all too close to the surface, and we can find all the “seasonal cheer” just a bit hard to take. If nothing else, ironically, I know I would like to be able to sit in silence for just a minute, right now!
But sometimes, the silence presses in on us, along with the long, dark night. Sometimes, it feels like we are kept from voicing all that we feel. We’re not supposed to talk about loneliness, sadness, loss, and hurt, this time of year. No one wants a “Debbie Downer” at Christmas dinner! So what do we do? We feel bound by silence, as we wait for something good, or better, at least, to happen.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Zechariah. I wonder what he really wanted to say to God when he was finally able to speak again. I wonder how much frustration he experienced. I wonder if he lost out on work because he couldn’t speak, or if he felt his relationships were in jeopardy because he was unable to communicate as usual, or if he wondered if things would ever be “normal” again! (And let’s be honest, once he had a child, things never would be “normal” again, anyway!)
But scripture doesn’t share any of Zechariah’s frustration with us, if there was any. Scripture tells us that when Zechariah was able to speak again—after he got the message across that his son’s name was to be John (a crazy idea to all of them because no one else in the family had been named John)—he used his words to rejoice, to praise God, and to prophesy about his son and about the other who was to come.
            Now, I think he was entitled to at least one remark about how irritating the whole experience had been! But that’s not at all what he said, at least as Luke tells us. When the silence was ended, Zechariah broke out in praise because he was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Of course, while Zechariah was dealing with a lot, he may not have been facing the difficult feelings we have this time of year. His surprise and wonder may not have been tainted by loss or hurt or worry. We may not have the resilience to prophesy like he was able to, once the silence was lifted.
Sure, there are a lot of things we don’t have in common with Zechariah. We do have one thing in common, though—we know that we, too, have the Holy Spirit with us, even when times are most difficult. We, too, know how the story will go, not because we’re given the gift to prophesy about it but because we have about 2,000 years of advantage on Zechariah! Though it can be tempting to get lost in the silence that this season brings us, when we might rather voice such “unpopular” feelings as sadness and anxiety and loneliness, we do still know that there is hope because we know the story, even before we hear it all read. We know the story of light for the people in darkness that Isaiah foretold long ago. We know the story of a child come to be king, to turn the world upside down, and to save people from their sins. Even when life seems least joyful, we do know that there is reason to rejoice, as difficult as it is. The silence does not need to last forever. The hard feelings are real, but we believe that we will again praise God, like Zechariah does. The silence will be ended. We will have reason to sing for joy again.
So, let’s look forward to that time when the silence is ended, even if that is not right now. Now may be a time for silence. Now may be a time for grief. But the silence will be ended. The darkness will be overcome with light. Joy will come again. As Zechariah says,
78Because of our God’s deep compassion,
    the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
79     to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
        to guide us on the path of peace.”
We are waiting for that light to dawn, for that silence to be broken. And we have hope that it will be so, even as we wait. God will come—God has come: God-with-us. The silence will be ended, and we will rejoice once more. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Thoughts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 21: Fourth Sunday of Advent
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.
~Luke 1:47-49

Read Luke 1:47-55

I don’t know about you, but I am not usually thankful for interruptions. In fact, one of the best ways to put me in a foul mood is to interrupt whatever plans I had for the day. Even though I can understand intellectually that interruptions are just part of life, I can’t always get past my own plans and my emotional investment in doing things the way I want to do them. I mean, how can I feel successful in my day, if I can’t do what I want to get done?!

So, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me how much I am always caught off-guard when I think of Mary’s response to the angel’s message about an unexpected pregnancy, an unutterably life-changing event for one such as Mary, let alone for anyone in the 21st century! Often, when my plans don’t work out, I mutter to myself about God not loving me, or something cynical and completely untrue such as that. But look at Mary—from the way scripture tells it, she found the most profound interruption of her life an occasion for praise, a reason to rejoice, an indication that all people would call her blessed! Say what?!

You may not be feeling blessed by the interruptions in your life right now, as Christmas nears us. You may not be  feeling especially chosen and loved by the God of the universe, depending on what’s going on in your life...but the truth that we know is that we are loved, no matter how easily we forget that. Because of the saving grace we have experienced through that very unexpected baby of Mary’s, we know that we, too, might be called blessed by all people because of God’s love for us. What would it take for us to live as beloved and chosen servants who praise our Creator and Sustainer, rather than muddled, self-sufficient grouches who think more of our own plans than the Divine’s mysterious ways? Well, it would take a lot for me, some days, but maybe this season, I’ll be able to let God work that out a little bit better than before!

Prayer: Life-giving God, open our hearts to rejoice in your care for us, when our plans work out our way...and when they don’t. Amen.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Grieving and Christmasing...all at the same time...

The following is a sermon I shared at the funeral home's "memory tree" service, where they invite family members of those whose funerals they've hosted in the last year to come and place an ornament on their tree in memory of their loved one, at the end of the worship service.

Isaiah 9:2
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.

John 1:1-5, Raymond Brown version
In the beginning was the Word: the Word was in God’s presence, and the Word was God. He was present with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, and apart from him not a thing came to be. That which had come to be in him was life, and this life was the light of men. The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it.

            I may never forget the view from a hike in Matobo Hills State Park in the middle of Zimbabwe, in May of 2001, the end of my fourth year of college. There were 13 of us—students from a small college in Iowa, led by our college chaplain. On that day, just like the others on our trip, we had met for breakfast then headed out for sightseeing. Our local tour guide was a bit too familiar with the rocky, steep climb, and he took off up the hill at a pace that would have pressed even the most athletic among us. Gordon, the chaplain, brought up the rear, not too far behind me. I remember him saying, “Feel the burn!” as we neared the first level place, where we all stopped to rest. As we gazed at the beauty before us—we students were all unfamiliar with the landscape of southern Africa, and we found it quite impressive—Gordon plopped down on the smooth rocks a short distance away. At first, we assumed he was enjoying the view and resting after that precipitous climb. By the time we realized that he was in distress, it was likely too late for anything to have saved him. Some of our group took turns administering CPR. A hospice nurse from Chicago showed up, hiking with family who currently lived in South Africa, and she helped out, though she undoubtedly knew the heart attack had already claimed its victim. (Months later, she would track down Gordon’s wife and check in with her, an act of kindness unexpected from a stranger who happened upon the most dire of situations in a remote park in sub-Sahara Africa.) I stood by in disbelief. This was all a trick. It wasn’t really happening. It couldn’t be real. But it was.
            Needless to say, our educational trip to Zimbabwe was cut short by Gordon’s death. Our bus driver took pity on us and agreed to take us back to the capital city, Harare. By chance or by providence, we had all registered our passports at the U.S. embassy on the first day of our trip, and the staff there got us tickets on the first flight back to London, then to the U.S. The college sent a staff person to meet us in London, to accompany the 12 of us students the rest of the way. As we boarded the plane in London, airline employees approached us with confusion about a large green duffel bag that appeared to have no owner. How do you explain to a flight attendant that the man who had brought that bag was dead?
            Back in Iowa, we met a few times as a group, trying to process what had happened, with the help of some college staff. The memorial service in the college chapel was beyond standing room only; it was broadcast to different locations on campus, where the overflow crowd was seated. I can’t remember ever attending another funeral where the presiding pastor wept uncontrollably as he attempted to led the service.
The college hired a new chaplain late that summer, and we student leaders and the chapel staff carried on the best we could. When December came, a huge pine tree was brought in from the usual vendor. The usual decorations were all in place. The festivities were all the same…but nothing was really the same.
Gordon had been a mentor to me, a father to me while I was away from home. He had been the first person to suggest I was called to ministry…and the most patient with me when I assured him I was not. How did everything just continue as it always had, now that he was gone? I don’t think his huge Bernese Mountain dog, Segen, ever stopped looking for his return. His mother developed stomach cancer and faded fast, that winter. I finished my fifth year of college and graduated, planning what I would do next, but wondering where God was really leading me and grieving for the loss of direction from one whose care and counsel had helped guide me through my first four years of college.
Now, after almost 15 years, I miss him still. I wonder, what would he say to me today, standing before so many people with hearts so broken? Perhaps he would grin and chuckle, suggesting that I already know what to say, telling me that whatever I share, it should be simple and come from the heart. And he would tell me to offer you grace—God’s grace—because that is what brings us through the darkness of life, to find the light of hope.
I don’t tell you all of this so that you’ll be sad for me. I tell you this because as I’ve prepared for this service, I’ve not known how to begin to speak to the deep darkness that threatens to envelop each one of us today. In the 18 months I’ve served a church here in Richlands, I’ve been involved in more than a dozen funerals. And let me tell you, when I did finally admit God was calling me to be a pastor (long after Gordon died), it wasn’t funerals I thought of! But in just 5 ½ years of ministry, I’ve been part of almost 3 dozen funerals. And I’ve thought sometimes, as someone wrote hundreds of years ago, “In the midst of life, we are in death; from whom can we seek help?”
So, what do we do now? We come to this, “the most wonderful time of the year,” as people who know too well the deep darkness, the depth of sadness, loss, and brokenness that disrupts the joy of the season, that sometimes seems it will never let us go. Indeed, we may ask, “from whom can we seek help?” This is, after all, literally, the darkest time of the year. And oh, our souls know what darkness is. How do we deal with the pain? How do we explain what hurts too much to explain? Some of us cry.  Some of us get angry. Some of us look for someone or something to blame, some way to fix things, some answer to it all. Sometimes it appears that darkness is winning.
I had a church member who was going through something horrible in her personal life. She said to me, “I feel like I’m in a deep, dark hole, Betz. And I can’t see any way out.” We’ve been there. At some point, we’ve found ourselves in deep, dark holes, or we’ve seen other people there, and we have felt helpless to ease their suffering, to lighten their darkness or our own. Sometimes, we feel like we can’t admit the helplessness, the hopelessness, the darkness that threatens us. We’re not supposed to be unhappy, especially at this time of year. We’re supposed to put on a brave face and say things like, “Everything happens for a reason,” and dismiss the pain that we feel.
But I don’t believe that’s what God wants us to do. I don’t believe that God expects us to ignore our brokenness, our hurts, the deep sadness that grips us sometimes. Life isn’t what we expected. Too often we can’t even find words to describe how we feel, let alone to make the pain go away. It may feel like darkness is closing in on us. And it might feel like it’s time to let go, to give up, to leave the Christmas lights turned off because of the darkness that sets in on our souls.
And yet, long ago, someone said to the people of Israel, “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.” Long ago, somebody knew that even in the midst of some horrible, awful times, God’s light was coming. And then, when John writes his version of the gospel, he says that it’s true: The light shines on in the darkness, for the darkness did not overcome it. We know that the darkness hasn’t overcome the light…and it never, ever, ever will, even though we may feel like it’s not true. We have hope because we know that God’s been shining light into darkness for a long, long time, and God’s not done yet. Though we grieve, no darkness is too great for the Light of the world! No matter what we’re going through, the Light is coming. The Light has always been coming. Christ’s light leads us on, into healing, through grieving, through whatever our deepest darkness may come from, and it leads us into the arms of the One who created us, who will rejoice with us again, in light.
As we remember our loved ones today, as we miss them, as we call their names and conjure memories of their faces, their voices, their embraces, we know that we are promised more than just memories. The promise is that no matter how much darkness we may feel like we’re sitting in, it cannot overcome the light that is Christ, shining into all darkness. When we think we are in the midst of the pit, the light shall still be shining. When we think we are lost along the way, the light does not leave us to grope blindly in the dark. No, despite all our cares and the darkness that sets in, the light has, in fact dawned. We don't always recognize it. We don't always hear or see it. But God remains: God-with-us. Emmanuel. The Light of the world. Though we may hurt, though we may not know how to make sense of what is happening and what has been, though we may wonder how we will move forward through this time and through whatever is to come, the Light is coming into this world. And no darkness, no matter how deep it is, no matter how terrible it seems, is able to overcome that Light.

So let us find some hope and joy in this season, not because we have no sorrow, not because we feel no heartache, and not because we experience no pain. Let us be joyful with the wise men, the shepherds, the angels, because the one who came as just a baby is, indeed, the light we have been looking for. There is light in the darkness. New day will dawn again. Let us remember not only the loved ones we miss, but also the One who gives us hope for their future and ours. And the light we have been looking for will be light to all people, that no darkness will ever extinguish. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 14: Third Sunday of Advent

 Now, may the God of peace himself cause you to be completely dedicated to him; and may your spirit, soul, and body be kept intact and blameless at our Lord Jesus Christ's coming. The one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.
~1Thessalonians 5:23-24

Read 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

When the weather gets cold, I find it difficult to think that anything will keep my body intact. Starting sometime in October, my hands get rough and start cracking, and I become convinced that all of my body parts will never again be warm at the same time! These verses from 1 Thessalonians make me stop and think about what else about me—spirit and soul—may also not seem completely intact, as we go through the cold of the year. What parts of me are not completely dedicated to God right now?

Sure, I’m as good at making excuses as anybody else—I’m not always completely dedicated because I’m tired, I’m busy, someone is bothering me, there are too many deadlines, etc., etc., etc. But now, right in the middle of Advent, while we have been working at preparing ourselves, while we have been spending time in self-examination and turning away from what keeps us from being ready for Christ’s return, what is really keeping me from being completely dedicated? Do I believe that God—the God of peace—can actually change me enough that I will be fully committed, completely dedicated to God’s cause in the world?

Yes! Yes, I do! And what’s more, I do already know that “the one who is calling you is faithful and will do this.” Now, I may forget, and I may let myself get distracted sometimes, but I do know that God is working on me and making me more faithful. I believe that God is doing that with all of us who believe, so that the world will know the good news of salvation.

I hope you are spending time with that God of peace this season, letting God shape you and mold you, letting God help you become more dedicated to God’s purposes. It’s not easy, but it is worth it!

Prayer: God of peace, renew us, revive us, and change us in this season, to anticipate with hope that which is to come, and to work with faithfulness and passion the tasks you set before us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

This is a few days late, but here's a devotional for this past Sunday.

Sunday, December 7: Second Sunday of Advent
 Here is the LORD God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.
 Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.
~Isaiah 40:10-11

Read Isaiah 40:1-11
Last Sunday, we read of Isaiah’s longing for God to show up in mighty ways. In today’s passage, he imagines that God has already done this. He sees God changing the very face of the earth—leveling mountains and lifting valleys—and  he describes how God will care for God’s people. Isaiah’s visions do not always seem very kind to Israel, when the people are not following in God’s ways and their hardships seem inevitable, but here, we know Isaiah is attuned to the love of the God whose mercy endures forever. Here, there is promise for a people who are like wayward sheep—promise, not because of their own striving, but because of the God who created and loves them.

As Advent continues and Christmas approaches, we may be beginning to feel like wayward lambs, like sheep who need to be guided in gentle and forgiving and restful ways. Whatever busyness may find you today, know that God is preparing, and always has been, for your rest and redemption, not through your own striving, but through God’s great love. Take comfort in  that, whether this time of year is bringing you hurry and stress or loneliness and pain. Christ will come again, and we will be made whole, whether on that great day of Christ’s return, or before then.

Seek the God who tends the flock this season, not all the gods of glamour and glitter and shiny gifts. After all, God is ever seeking you. Now may just be the perfect time to let yourself be found by such a strong and caring shepherd!

Prayer: God our Shepherd, guide us into right paths this Advent. Prepare the way in us for your return, through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thoughts for the First Sunday of Advent

My church puts together an Advent devotional booklet each year, and I wrote the meditations for all of the Sundays this year. Here is today's:

Sunday, November 30th: First Sunday of Advent

If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!
Mountains would quake before you
like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil.
If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence.
Isaiah 64:1-2

Read Isaiah 64:1-9

For thousands of years, humans have longed to see God with our own eyes. All too often, we have done a great job of manufacturing a god or gods we could see...much to the detriment of our relationship with the God of the universe, the Creator of all things.

The prophets of Israel were like the rest of us in this, that they would really have liked to see God, it seems. Isaiah cried out to God, for God’s presence to be made known in visible and tangible ways, to the people of Israel. He longed for the people to heed his warning words from God, and he looked for God to make a big show of God’s presence, to let everyone know who was really in charge.

The Church has also looked for all kinds of signs of God’s showing up with us again, ever since Christ’s ascension. People have put lots of time and effort into trying to figure out when that would happen. No matter when it does happen, though, the Church has observed Advent as a time to prepare for Christ’s return. It’s a time not to calculate days and hours, but to be prepared for what Isaiah hoped for, to examine ourselves and let God be at work making us into people who look forward to the excitement of Christ’s return—not people who live in fear of when that happens. Advent is a time for us to seek God’s work in and through us, for as Isaiah said,
But now, Lord, you are our father.
    We are the clay, and you are our potter.
    All of us are the work of your hand.” (v.8)

As Advent begins, how will you look for God to change you this season? What will you do differently, to let that happen?

Prayer: God, our Potter, help us to look forward not only to the celebration of Christ’s birth, but also to Christ’s return, with hope and joy. Amen.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

October: A Time for Pumpkin Lattes and Domestic Violence Awareness...

It’s hard to say when it started. I met him at church. He came to the Sunday school class I attended, and we were two of very few single young adults in the church—a church with a large and enthusiastic young adult population, most with young families.

I remember he said he wasn’t sure what he needed in a relationship. He had just had a horrible break-up with a live-in girlfriend. When he believed she was cheating, he had taken her cell phone and looked through her call log and text messages. Their arguing had escalated to the extent that police had been involved, I think. It sounded like she had been quite a doozy… And he was still mourning his mother’s death from cancer, a year or two before. It was a sad story. He had few friends; he was depressed (I do thank God he finally did get treatment for that...after our relationship was over). His job was not entirely fulfilling, and he wasn’t making the money he had always thought he would. Maybe I thought I could help him. He thought I would be a good influence on him, as I was going to be a pastor, and all. It took me just a little too long to realize the harmful nature of the pedestal I was so precariously placed on, in his mind.

So, it’s hard to say when it started. He was sad. I was lonely. He was 8 years older than me. Maybe that made it OK that he would move my glass away from me at dinner, just in case I might spill it (kind of like my parents would do when I was 5…). Maybe that made it true that I had no comprehension of how stressful money troubles could be (even though I had my own job and paid my own bills and worked diligently to live within my own means). Maybe that made it acceptable for him to question and dislike my friends, to say I should have tried harder to find a job that paid what a person with an M.A. in English “should” be paid (rather than the pay the inner city mission agency could afford), and to treat me like my lack of experience in romantic relationships meant I had to agree to do everything his way. Maybe he was right—maybe I did expect him to say “I love you” too often, so it was OK when he stopped saying it…

There were some good moments, of course. We got along well sometimes, and we had fun together. And when we did have an argument, after a day or two of the cold shoulder, he would be contrite. Things would be good again, for a while. It’s typical…the cycle of abuse.

For Christmas, he got a “promise ring" for me. It got him what he wanted. I got more broken. We set a wedding date for late July, shortly before I would need to move for seminary. By late February, when we met with the pastor for our first premarital counseling session, the date was already off the table, for a number of reasons. I first tried to break up with him in April, and in May I gave back the promise ring—it was never quite clear to me what the promise was supposed to be, anyway. Not long after that, I determined that my move to Durham in August would be my way out of the relationship. He didn’t like it when I told him that, but I didn’t know how else to exit the relationship and I did know that once I was out of his sight, I’d be out of his mind, for the most part. On the date we had initially set as a wedding date, I spent the day hanging out at the house of one of his friends, while he and his friend replaced my car’s shocks and struts. At least that redeemed that date, in one sense: free labor on a major car repair was a lot better deal than getting married to the wrong guy…but I’m still waiting for the year that date goes by unnoticed for me. The relationship ended, more or less officially, in October, after two months of very little contact following my move. (Two months of seminary classwork will bring clarity about a thing or two, too!) It was a year of my life I will never get back…and it took me 3 more years and 3 stints of counseling to realize fully how much damage had been done.

So, fast forward 3 years from the October that I got out of that mess. Holston Conference’s clergy day apart is all about domestic violence awareness, this particular year. Our bishop shares his story of domestic violence that killed his own mother. We receive a handout that describes the profile of an abuser. I realize, sitting in the balcony at Colonial Heights UMC in Kingsport, TN, that I have been abused. Whoa.

A few months later, with the help of a counselor and the grace of God, I came to terms with that fact. I learned to deal with the me that was vulnerable to such abuse. It wasn’t easy to admit. I mean, I’m too educated to have been a victim of emotional abuse. I’m too intelligent, have too much common sense, was raised to be an independent thinker and do what’s right. How could I have been a victim of abuse?

And it’s not that I didn’t have friends and family that cared for me. They tried. They were concerned. But I was stuck--in much deeper than I realized at the time.

So, what is there to say now about what happened then? Well, what I can say now is that the abuse was really quite subtle. I don’t think it was entirely intentional on his part. In fact, I remember quite clearly telling the first counselor I talked to that no, he was not abusive, just manipulative. Manipulative isn’t so bad, right? And what I can say now is that I have been taught all my life to take responsibility for my actions, sometimes to a fault, which makes it really easy not to admit that I’ve been a victim of someone else’s wrong actions. And what I can say now is that when there aren’t physical signs, it’s really easy to convince oneself that the abuse “wasn’t that bad.” And maybe it wasn’t. But it sure wasn’t “good,” or even "normal," either.

Why am I writing about this? Well, I guess it’s my blog and I can share my story if I want to, right? But I also need to say that this culture that says that women are to blame for their abuse, for not getting out of abusive relationships, for wearing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing or just not saying “no” when someone else thinks they should have, needs to be called out. This idea that some men just can't help themselves is, well, to keep things G-rated here, nonsense. Yeah, I made some choices I’m not proud of, but I am not to blame for what someone else did to me. I did not ask to be put in the situation I ended up in. And yeah, I understand why it’s so hard to leave. We all want to be loved. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out the way we think it will. Then, we get good at blaming ourselves. Then, we make excellent excuses on our abuser's behalf. We don’t need the society around us blaming us and making excuses for our abusers, too. Thankfully, some of us are able to leave with less damage than others. Some are not able to leave, ever.

In this month marked for domestic violence awareness, don’t just feel sorry for the women, children, and men who find themselves adrift in the wreckage of relationships that have been abusive. Listen to someone else’s story. Sit with someone else, in her sorrow--or dance with her, in her joy for a new beginning! And for the love of God (and I really mean that), pray, and seek to treat all of your neighbors, including (especially?) those in your very own house and most intimate relationships, with the respect and love and grace that God has offered you. I promise it will help. But if that’s too big of a step, just work on telling people that you love them…and really mean it. I’ll be working on all of that, too.