Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Pageants


While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.  Luke 2:6-7

This weekend is our Christmas pageant at our church, a moment of sacred chaos.  As the children tell us the old, old story we know so well, we see a deeper truth.  We see brought to life not only the words of Luke and Matthew.  We see brought to life not only the heavenly angels fluttering, shepherds acting scared, Mary and Joseph nervously huddled around a plastic doll in a wooden manger.  We will see all these truths and one more that is often unspoken: our children embody the mystery of Emmanuel: God with us, in the flesh.  Our children speedily saying their lines or needing a cue from the director or singing off key...all of this less-than-perfect moments amplify the truth of Emmanuel: God with us, in the flesh.

Often times in church we get caught up in thinking everything has to go according to plans...usually our plans, thank you very much.  Often times in church we want children to be seen, not heard.  But life is messy.  And God blessed that holy truth by being born in a cow shed, not some sterile hospital room.  God blessed the holy truth of messiness by coming into the world in a little town of Bethlehem, when the temple was right there six miles away.  God blessed the holy truth of messiness by entering our world and it was only noticed by a ragtag group of shepherds and foreigners from out of town.  

How often in church do we miss God entering the holy mess of life?  All the time.  All the time at committee meetings and less than perfect worship and impassioned arguments over details.  Don't get me wrong, details matter.  Being faithful in small moments will help us in bigger moments.  But sometimes we get so wrapped up in the small stuff, we miss the great big audacious ways God is still speaking, creating and moving into our midst right now.  Maybe not in a stable, but in that annoying family member.  Maybe not in a manger, but in the customer service manager who is working long hours and now trying to explain a store policy he did not write, but has to enforce to you.  Maybe not in a stable, but a holy chaos of a Christmas Pageant offered with hearts wide open from our children.  

The story is always fresh because our children rotate roles and step into the sandals of another character.  The story is always fresh because each year we hit a new speed bump that reminds us only God is perfect.  The story is always fresh because you...yes YOU in the pews...are asked to open your hearts wide and embrace this holy day.  I pray you will experience the deep truth of Emmanuel at church this weekend that offers a trace of grace and sets the tiny hairs on your arms on end.

With great hope, peace that surpasses understanding, and serendipitous joy ~

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Great Expectations


 Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  Luke 2:5

What was Mary expecting?  Yes, I know, a baby.  Thank you Ms. Literal.  No, I am wondering what was she expecting deep down in our soul?  What dreams had she played out in our mind of giving birth to the son of God?  Did she think it would hurt?  Did she think Jesus quote the Torah rather than go through the terrible twos?  Did she think, this will be the best retirement plan ever!  

What did Joseph expect?  Did he expect to see his own eyes in the one he would adopt as his own?  Did he expect that his heart would burst open?  Did he anticipate showing Jesus around his carpenter shop, showing him how to use the tools, gently guiding his hands?

What do you expect this Christmas?  Expectations are a powerful and potent part of our lives.  So often our great expectations go awry.  We expect to be overwhelmed with joy when we open a gift...only to find a store bought fruit cake.  "Gee thanks, Bob.  It's perfect... {softly under your breath} for my dog."  What do you expect when you come to church?  Which carols?  What kind of sermon?  Besides short...believe me, I know.  What do you expect from your family?  What do you expect from yourself?

So much of our faith and our life is about expectations...how to cope when they go unmet.  I often forget this.  I end up going to a party thinking, "This will be awesome."  Only to stand alone and frustrated in the corner.  I end up going to a church meeting thinking, "Ugh...not again"...only to be frustrated.  The powerful thing about expectations is sometimes they are met...sometimes we force them to be met.  

Part of Advent is being honest about your expectations.  What if you took ten minutes today and wrote down your hopes and dreams?  What if you wrote down your fears?  Then offered all that to God with the simple prayer, "Help." And, "Please".  

As the candles of hope and peace are joined by joy this next Sunday, how is that guiding your expectations?  Are you willing to let the One who is constantly turning our world upside down, the One who is born not as a powerful ruler in a palace, but as a pauper, a tiny vulnerable infant in a lowly stable, the One who comes to us not with demands and decrees, but an invitation to be embraced by hope, peace, joy and love set your expectations?  

C.S. Lewis often said that God's love is the "intolerable compliment".  We don't know what do to with such real and raw love.  So we romanticize it and sing, "Away in a Manger" rather than be honest that Jesus probably cried as a baby.  Or we theorize and analyze it, "Obviously this story of Jesus' birth is a myth, made up, due to the historical data that Caesar never would have had a mass migration of people."  Yes, thank you, Mr. Literal for that.  Or we try to keep God's love at arm's length.  But what if our expectation is that God loves us and that God's love will come to us this Christmas time.  Perhaps not in my carefully constructed and planned ways, but come nevertheless.  Because that kind of expectation will offer us more than just a trace of God's grace, it will be the best news ever...because it's true.

With great hope, peace, and joy ~

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Decrees

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.  Luke 2: 1

Aren't you glad we live in a world where there are no decrees?
Aren't you glad we are fully in control of our own lives, the master of our own domains?
Aren't you glad we live in a world where there are no obligations to attend Christmas parties?  
To participate in secret Santa exchanges?
To spend our Saturdays among crowded streets of retail refugees seeking the last Xbox?
Aren't you glad your neighbor doesn't show up with fruit cake and force you to eat a piece while faking yummy noises?

Sorry...maybe that last one is just me.

Part of the reality of the first Christmas and the Christmas today is there are all sorts of written and unwritten decrees.  We might call them, "Obligations".  We might drag our feet with slouched shoulders as we put on our reindeer tie to head out to some gatherings.  We might grumble as we write out cards to our second cousin twice removed.  These decrees don't come from some Emperor...unless you count Emily Post and Martha Stewart and other keepers of social etiquette as the Emperors.  

December brings all sorts of busyness that makes demands on our time.  Our to-do list overflows.  Our feet ache from being on the go.  Our stomach...well just see the above named fruit cake.  So often we long for something else.  We declare, "This year will be different."  But the decrees of December come a knocking and we dutifully answer the door, put on our coat, and get caught up once again in the hustle and bustle.

If that is where you are at this week...take heart.  Take heart, because the first Christmas did not come wrapped perfectly with a pretty bow.  The first Christmas did not go according to Mary and Joesph's plans.  One of the truths this season celebrates and shines a light on is the cliche, "Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans."  I dare say our faith is what happens when we are busy trying to be more spiritual than we actually are.  Often as pastors, because we took Constructive Theology classes in seminary and wrote papers to be graded on the subject, we think that what we need to preach and practice is being constantly in control.  Now, don't get me wrong, I am still a type A, control-freak.  But I am also trying to be open to God's movement, creativity, voice, and life-changing love in my life...which offers its own decrees and claim of what offers life abundant.

So where does that leave us?  Should we just succumb to every invitation/decree?  Should we radically root out anything that does not make us merry and bright this December?  Or should we live in the messy middle of reality?  Where decrees come and go.  Where we make good choices and sometimes not so good choices (again see the above fruit cake for an illustration).  And through it all, we try to remember the deeper truth of Advent: to stay awake; to keep our lamps trimmed and burning; to be alert and aware...not just go through the month on auto pilot.  While that will not solve all our problems... maybe at that Christmas party you don't want to go to...you will discover a glimmer/glint of hope.  Maybe as you are writing out the Christmas card...you will pause and pray for your niece struggling with cancer, even call her.  Maybe you will hear the voice of God interrupting and intruding on all the busyness this time of year with a decree to breathe...and just be.

May there be more than a trace of grace in this Advent season for you.

With great hope and peace ~

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Hope


A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  Isaiah 11:1

Hope is a fickle and fleeting; hope shows up unannounced and can leave just as quick; hope is intrusive and refuses to be ignored.  And yet, if you asked me which of the four Advent candles we will light in church in the coming four weeks (hope, peace, joy, and love) is the most important, I would not hesitate to say, "Hope!"

Hope is as elusive as a snowball in Florida this time of year.  Hope is slippery and can quickly turn to wishing; which is not the same as hoping.  Hoping is active, hope makes demands upon our very lives.  Wishing is more passive.  I can make list after list of wishes, but once I write down my hopes, they stake a claim on my life.

It is difficult to define hope.  The dictionary uses words like "desire and expectation" or a "feeling of trust" or "something to happen".  But that seems to be dancing around what is at the heart of hope.  Hope is a vision that today does not need to be like yesterday; and tomorrow need not be like today.  Hope refuses to stay stuck in a rut.  Hope is movement and momentum toward a vision of what can be.  There is a vulnerability to hope, because life experience teaches us quickly that we do not always live in the land of Hope.  Hope is like a small green shoot that springs forth from a cut of stump.  Isaiah invokes the name of Jesse, who was the father of the great (albeit flawed and totally human) King David.  King David was seen as the embodiment of God's promise to be with God's people.  King David was idealized and romanticized in some of the books of the Bible; and brought down to earth quicker that you can say, "TMZ" in other books of the Bible.  But when Babylon came in 740 BCE and overthrew the Northern Kingdom of the promised land; then conquered the southern part in 588 BCE...the best of times became the worst of times.  The people felt cut off, chopped off, separated from God.  Where is hope then?  Or as the psalmist says, "How can we sing to God in a foreign land (meaning Babylon)?"  Where is your hope when you cannot find the words or the Christmas carols sound out of tune and sync with your life?

How would you define hope?
What do you hope for in these dwindling days of 2014 and as 2015 dawns around us?

Yet, hope keeps showing up.  Hope keeps knocking and telling us that God is not done with us yet.  God keeps showing up, often in the most unlikely ways, like an infant born to two unwed parents.  Like a itinerant preacher two thousand years ago, who call twelve nobodies to follow him, and they did!  Like a love that Rome thought they could squelch by a cross, but love wins on Easter morning.  That kind of hope keeps persisting and pressing for God's realm.  In many ways I think saying the Lord's prayer is an act of hope.  So, this week, keep awake and alert and aware of hope in your life.  Try saying the Lord's prayer every day and look for the ways hope is showing up...and may those moments you are captured by hope be a trace of God's grace this Advent season.

Blessings~

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!  Psalm 95

This evening at church, we enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast.  There was turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and of course, pumpkin pie.  There is something about this combination of food that fills us with comfort, joy, and Tryptophan to grant us all a peaceful night's rest.  Thanksgiving is also a time of counting blessings, reflecting on what brings us joy, and makes us laugh. 

Thanksgiving is a threshold moment too.  We know that 2014 is dwindling and soon a new year will dawn.  We know that December days are packed with a variety of tasks and parties and events.  The cooler winds, even in Florida, proclaim that change is in the air.  

Music plays a key role in this time of year.  Familiar carols fill the airwaves as we shop, drive down the road, entertain, decorate, on television specials.  So, here is my challenge to you:

First, this season listen to the carols.  Really listen to the words.  What do the words and phrases describe?  How do they point to the mystery of God breaking into the world?

Second, which of the traditional Advent words (hope, peace, joy, or love) would you associate with that carol and why?  The why is really the interesting part.  When out at lunch with a church friend, talk about which category "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "O Holy Night" might fall into and why you think that way.

I pray this will fill you with joy and help you make a joyful noise this season.  I pray as you give thanks in worship on Sunday and throughout the coming weeks, what are you most grateful for?
I know for me my random list is:

A loving family with two growing, healthy kids
A wife who understands and loves me
A diverse church to serve as a pastor
The challenges, good challenges, I face every day
And of course, Thanksgiving feasts that end with pie.

May your Thanksgiving and the rituals you engage in over the coming week bring you more than a trace of God's grace.

Happy Thanksgiving and blessings ~

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Disappointments



Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Psalm 23:4

We all have moments of feeling disappointed.  Something doesn't go our way: we are passed over for a job promotion; someone says something that reminds us that while sticks and stones can break our bones, words really do sometimes hurt us; or we feel an internal sense of unrest.  In these valley moments sometimes we turn to the church.  But what exactly are we looking for?  Do you want the pastor to do a reprise of "The sun will come out tomorrow" from Annie?  Or do you want the pastor to dwell with you in the disappointment?  Or do you want a distraction?  Or some random combination of all three?  

Most of the time when dwelling in the valley of disappointment, I don't know exactly what I want.  Someone starts to give me advice or cheer me up or give me that look of concern and I find myself frustrated that it is not right.  Part of the issue is that this is a cultural myth of happiness.  We are all convinced that God wants us to be happy.  But is it really possible to be happy all the time?

St. Augustine is famous for comparing grace to a toothache.  He wrote that before his tooth started to hurt, he did not know how good life was.  But once that throbbing started in and he could not find relief, he would have done ANYTHING to go back to his previous, albeit naive, state of life.  Grace allows us to hold in tension the good and the bad.  Grace allows us to move forward, even while carrying the rocks from the past.

I think most of us eventually make peace with disappointments in life.  We move on.  But for me disappointments also remind me that I am not constantly in control.  I do things, say things, and assume things that have consequences.  I don't expect God to be Super Spiritual deity to swoop in and save me from my boneheaded self.  God does, I think with grace, help me pick up the pieces.  God does help me see the errors I have made...not with guilt but with grace.  God does help me have the strength to wake up tomorrow and say once more, "Thank you God for waking me up and thank you God for getting me up."

For me, the cliches don't always cut it.  Disappointments don't always make me stronger.  I can't just forget and forgive.  I don't just put my chin up or pull myself up by my boot straps.  No, I don't do any of that.  But faith gives me a light to see.  Faith gives me a hope to lean into.  Faith gives me a grace and love that make all the difference.  That is what I give thanks for every day, even in the valley moments.

Blessings and peace ~

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In the still of the night



I am a morning person.  There is something about the crispness of the air as the sun starts to peak over the horizon; that warm cup of coffee in your hands; facing the day as a blank canvass.  But by the end of the day, I am usually exhausted.  My mind is sluggish and that blank canvass I started with twelve hours ago is now covered, spilled on and even spilling over onto the ground from the activities of the day.  Some of what covers the canvass of today I am proud of; moments ~ when I sensed God in a real way.  But other parts are not my best work; moments I strayed or said something that I instantly regret.  Even though I love to begin each day, it is also sacred work to step back and look back at what happened in the past hours.

This is an ancient practice within the Christian developed by St. Ignatius called the Examination,  He advocated for five steps before going to bed each night:
1. Become aware of God’s presence. Take deep breathes, clear your mind, try to let go of the "could'ves" and "should'ves" we all pick up and put in our bundles every day.
2. Review the day with gratitude.  Giving thanks, focusing on the good is always a great way to start.  It is easy to bogged down in the negatives, especially when life doesn't go our way.
3. Pay attention to your emotions. We should never gloss over what we truly feel.  Even if all you can give thanks for is the breath you breathe in step 2, then you can move on to step 3 you can acknowledge the other thoughts stirring within.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. What one event or experience sticks out?  Maybe a conversation or moment; focus and listen to what it has to say.
5. Look toward tomorrow. As you close out the day, prepare your heart for tomorrow.  This could include needing to say your sorry for the boneheaded thing you said or it be saying thank you to a friend for lunch.

Nighttime is the best time to do such an activity.  Creation is slowly down.  There is a quietness starting to take hold.  It is good to listen to the sound of crickets or the soft wind blowing through the trees.  Nighttime is also a vulnerable time.  And the steps above invite a type of vulnerability.  It is to say that we are not as in control as we like to think.  I often find that during the day time it is harder to hear creation.  Noise from cars or your neighbor working outside drown out God's voice singing in creation.  Of course, noise is not only external.  Sometimes the hardest noise to quiet at night is the inner voice that keeps wanting to re-hash that conversation with a friend.  Or you finally come up with a snappy come back to that rude store clerk.

I invite you tonight, as you read this blog, to enter into the steps of the examine.  See where our still speaking God guides you.  May you have a peaceful nights rest with the traces of God's grace around you.

See you in the morning.

Blessings ~