Thursday, November 17, 2011

Prepare the Way

Our turkey is thawing in the fridge, the sweet potatoes wait on the counter to be cooked, and well if the pie was in the house it would already be half-eaten. Thanksgiving gathers us around a table of abundance and we bump elbows with our relatives and friends. Around the table there can be everything from laughter to tension if the topics of religion or politics come up. Around the table we celebrate the truth that our connections with each other and with God matter and make a difference.

Thanksgiving, in the popular culture signals the entrance to the holiday season. Shopping and parties and frenzied schedules. Thanksgiving in the church marks the entrance to Advent. Advent is a time set aside as the church to be intentional and prayerful about how we journey to Bethlehem to witness again and anew the birth of Jesus. Advent names aloud for all to hear that we already know the road to Bethlehem. This is one place where popular culture helps the church tell the story. Think about The Peanuts where Linus dons his blanket to recite the Luke passage after Charlie Brown exclaims at the top of his voice that 'Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?!?!"(if you need a reminder of this great scene, clink here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKk9rv2hUfA)

But because we have 'been there, done that' with the Christmas narrative, you may wonder why? Why do we need Advent? Why not show up on Christmas Eve ready... set...go? Why add one more thing to my already, hectic life?

Advent, for me, is not about guilt as much as it is recognizing that even though I know the story so well, there is always a surprise waiting this year. Advent says even if I know the path to Bethlehem and can get there without my GPS/with my eyes closed, I am a different person this year. Or there may be a new side road to Bethlehem that I did not notice when I was traveling in 2010. Advent proclaims even if I go down the same path, even if it feels like I am standing in last year's straw with the same old shepherds, there will still be a serendipitous, sacred moment that I could miss if I am on autopilot.

I encourage you this Advent to be intentional, to be prayerful in preparing. The church I serve this Sunday (November 20, 2011) will be offering a devotional tied to things you are already planning to do that will hopefully help you notice the sacred and traces of God's grace all around you. It will also be posted to our website: www.janesvilleucc.org

Most of all, I pray in the marathon blur between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, you will find moments of peace and signs of hope and most of all traces of God's grace and love all around you.

Blessings and Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Stirring and Swirling Spirit

Something is supposed to happen at church when we gather. Maybe it is not as life changing, earth shattering and disorienting as Acts 2:1-13 makes church out to be. But the movement of God's presence in our midst when we gather as a community of faith holds the promise that something should, could, might just happen every time we gather.

Acts 2 is the quintessential church beginning/birthday narrative. We read it on Pentecost every single year, which is celebrated 50 days after Easter. Perhaps reading it in the sanctuary is not the most appropriate place to read this passage. Pentecost is about God working outside the church: in our homes and in our lives. Maybe on Pentecost we would be better to gather as small groups in people's homes, read this passage, sit in silence and share where we've noticed traces of God's grace in our life since Easter morning.

Pentecost connects to John 1:14: the Word became flesh and lived (or better yet, 'lives') among us'. Pentecost connects to Genesis 1:1 where the Spirit of God surfed over the chaos of creation and started moving in new ways. Pentecost is a Red Sea moment where the disciples passed through the parted waters from relying on Jesus to tell them physically where to go and what to do to relying on the Spirit to help guide them where to go, what to do and believe. That transition was not easy (read the rest of Acts and you'll find some of the most gut-wrenching church arguments).

In some ways as people of faith we still live in the messy middle, transition of Pentecost. It remains difficult to truly rely on the Spirit because it awakens a variety of responses and explanations. I can feel led to try new worship formats that others find too jarring and not helpful. Where is the Spirit at then? Usually, we see this as a zero sum game. The Spirit needs to choose a side. Either I was 'right' to try the new format or the person who found it less than filled with God's presence was 'right'.

Yet, Pentecost proclaimed that God's realm isn't a zero sum game. We can perceive the Spirit each in our own language. Which makes it messy and hard to know what to do next. What we tend to do next is exactly what is recorded in verse 13 when those who wondered what in the world was going on, decided the explanation that made the most sense was that the disciples were 'full of new wine.' I think that is one of the funniest lines in all of scripture and it makes me smile every time.

We do that today. When someone has an experience outside what our heart or mind can comprehend, we try to explain it away. When someone holds a different perspective than our own, we try to find loopholes in their logic. Yet, at the same time, we know that our own experiences are far from fully understood. We know that our own perspectives have their own leaps of logic larger than the Grand Canyon.

This is where I prayerfully think the church can be a visible light to the world. By showing that people can be honest and listen with open hearts to each other. If you keep reading after the new wine comment, Peter doesn't demonize those who said the sarcastic comment. He preaches a sermon about God's presence and invites dialogue.

In my hope and prayer for the church, we strive to do the same. To have that kind of dialogue would certainly be a trace of God's grace and even a prayerful living out of the Pentecost story in our midst today. Who knows how the Spirit might stir and swirl; what kind of new creation and connections might be formed; and even the way we might re-discover what it means to be the church.

On this rainy, wind swirling day as I write these words, I pray you will notice God's presence in such a way so as to connect with a hope, peace, joy and love that is real and makes a difference for today and for countless days to come.

Blessings and peace

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Waiting

Hopefully the words of Acts 1 have been roaming around your heart and mind over the last week. Hopefully those words have even settled in and unpacked like welcomed house guest.

Here is what I find so compelling about the beginning of Acts: the disciples have to wait. Essentially, they are ready to go. In verse 6, they question when God's kingdom, or realm, is going to be fully realized/fully present in their midst. You sense that the expectation is soon...very soon...like get out your calendars and mark the date kind of soon.

Jesus responded by essentially saying, don't worry about that. And instead told them to wait.

Now, if you are ready for something to happen, if you have your bags all packed ready to go, if you believe that any minute now there is going to be a dramatic, life-shifting kind of change in your life, being told to wait is heart breaking.

If you want proof of this, think about an airport. There is a buzz of activity and anticipation. Then, if the poor person working the desk of the airline has to say over the speaker the flight has been delayed, there is loud, audible groan. I have sat there in those moments and heard not only the groan, but it felt like the air escaped and the chatter around me turned from anticipation to frustration in a single second.

Being told to wait is challenging to us. We live our life so fast that coming to a sudden stop because of waiting is just plain jarring to us. It feels like whiplash. I look around and see so many people waiting.

I think about people who do not have a job, keep on applying for positions and are forced to wait for responses after interviews that set hopes soaring.
I think about people whose mortgage is in limbo, keep on making payments, but are waiting for something to shift in the housing market.
I think about those who have illnesses who wait for treatment options or wait for results of the latest tests.

There are many types of waiting. There is the "I am bored" kind of waiting when you are in the line at the grocery store or counting train cars going past your windshield. Then there is the kind of waiting that is hoping beyond hope, praying with sighs louder than words, that something is going to happen...soon...please God.

Most of us know the first type of waiting and experience it daily. But too many people experience the second kind of waiting alone. The second type of waiting drains us emotionally and physically and we question God's presence.

And for all the church's good intentions over the years to provide comfort in the form of words or logical explanations about why the second kind of waiting exists at all, we have failed to live into the response of the disciples in verses 12-14. They waited...together. Sure Peter gave a sermon in verse 15. (I too sometimes find it hard to wait quietly in a group). The point is they waited...together.

Go back to that airport example. One of the reasons why it is so hard to wait there, so frustrating isn't because of the food and stale air (although that doesn't help). It is so difficult to wait in that moment because we feel powerless. I can't fly an airplane, even if there is one sitting outside the window. I don't know how long the delay will really be. To make matters worse, even though I am surrounded by people in the same place, they are strangers, and I feel alone. Waiting alone wreaks havoc on us. Feeling like you are waiting alone even as you bump up against people daily doesn't help either.

Too many people today are waiting alone...and at the same time they bump up against others daily.

One way (certainly not the only way) of the church being the church today is to wait together. My hunch is that as the disciples waited they had potluck meals, prayed together, worshiped together, laughed and shared stories together.

At some point in trying to maintain buildings and run interesting programs and trying to be an institution, as a church we lost the indescribable, faithful invitation to be together. It doesn't solve everything, but for me it is better than the alternative of being alone.

The first story in Acts...which describes the church being the church...is to wait together. But, that isn't the only story in Acts...that is not the only way of the church being the church.

So, because this is so much fun, look at Chapter 2 verses 1-15

Read it aloud...I know it is still not easy
Circle words that cause you to smile
Underline words that bring a frown to your face

Feel free to ask questions.

Again, I will offer a few insights soon. But I believe that traces of God's grace come from your thoughts and from your heart. Happy reading...and may God's peace warm your life like the sun on an autumn day.

Blessings