Saturday, December 28, 2013

Light and Darkness



In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1

There is something very powerful and poetic about the beginning of John's gospel.  John proclaims that in the beginning (echoing Genesis 1:1) God's Word was sung over creation and creation sprang forth dancing and responding in harmony.  God's Word brought forth all that is seen and unseen in this life. One of the amazing truths of Genesis 1 is that there are three things present when creation got going and growing: God, the Word, and Chaos.  The chaos swirled and sloshed and stirred arrhythmic-ally.  And while chaos eventually fades into the background, it is never fully erratically.

And when God slips into skin to walk among us, chaos will swirl and slosh and stir around God too.  Instead of chaos, the word John prefers is "darkness".  When you live in the upper Midwest, you get use to darkness  at this time of year.  Many people leave for and return from work in the dark.  Darkness creeps in through the windows and is kept at bay by artificial light.  But day after day of being without light not only leads to a deficiency in Vitamin B, it also starts to make us weary emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  

At the same time, darkness has a place.  There are moments when we dwell in the valley of the shadow of darkness and death.  And Psalm 23 promises that God is there, just as God is there on the mountain top. Darkness was where Jacob encountered God...twice.  And the second time was when Jacob wrestled with God and was able to claim his full identity.  The darkness of 3 am was when God called out to Samuel.  Jonah spent time in the belly of a whale...which while I have no actual experience with this (and don't want it!)... I assume that was a moment of darkness as well.

Darkness is not about being separated from God, but it is a different way of experiencing God.  There is a holiness to darkness if we open ourselves to it.  Of course, in order to do this we need to let go fully of those lingering fears that stick with us from childhood.  Many of us had those moments when the pile of clothes, we should have picked up like our mom told us, start to look mysterious and eerie in the middle of the night.  And yet, over time, through experiences in your life you can start to adjust your eye sight and there are things you can see at night that we are blind to in the brightness of day.  When we let down our carefully guarded public persona at night, we see who we are and whose we are.

One of the truths of darkness is that a single light can start to scatter the night around.  You light one single candle and suddenly your eyes and attention are drawn to it.  And to be honest, one candle in a room of darkness is pretty insignificant, yet it does make a difference.  Perhaps the same is true for our faith as well.  Sometimes it is the small moments that start to make a difference.  A hug.  A well timed email or text.  A thoughtful word at coffee hour.  Those can become light in the midst of darkness.

What moments of darkness do you find yourself in right now?  Is there even a smidgen of light that is shining into that moment?  How might you be open to God's presence both in darkness and light?  May you be open to such traces of God's grace and light as 2013 draws to a close and 2014 dawns upon us.

Blessings ~

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!!



May the hope, peace, love and joy of Christ's birth be born anew in you this day.  And may the warmth of Christ's light guide you every day for the coming year.  

This is the day we feel more than a trace of God's grace. 

 Merry Christmas and God's blessings ~

Monday, December 23, 2013

Joy...Unveiled


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 2:10

No matter how many Christmas services, Bible studies, pageants or plays I participate in, the above line belongs solely to the wispy voice of Linus from the Charlie Brown Christmas special.  You remember, right?  Charlie Brown, as he is oft wont to do, loses his cool...that probably sounds familiar when you were out shopping this weekend right?  He screams, "Doesn't any body know the true meaning of Christmas?"

That moment captures the modern day experience.  We try searching for the meaning of Christmas every year.  We know it is not found in stores...but we still check, just in case Target got a supply of Christmas meaning this year.  We know it is not found in racing from party to party to some other event until we fall exhausted into bed at night...but we still keep going because of social pressure.  Unfortunately, even the church, does not always seem to be able to answer Charlie's eternal question.  After all, we can get caught up in pageants and plans for Christmas Eve and did someone remember to order new candles and did someone remind the family about lighting the Advent wreath.  Wait, they are sick?  Great...I mean...prayers for them.

I wonder if the church adds to the cacophony or cuts through it?  Do we help people who every year struggle with Charlie's question, only to find themselves surrounded by shards of wrapping paper and empty boxes on Christmas afternoon thinking, "What is this day really all about?"

Enter Linus.  He tells a simply story of shepherds being surprised by an angel who has good news.  Good news, which is "gospel" really means, that is what we are all looking for, right?  Rather than story after story on the television about government bickering and violence and the blatant discrimination of the Russian government against gay and lesbian children of God.  We want, we long for, we thirst for good news.  

The tough question is, would we listen even if an angel showed up singing good news?  Or would we hold onto a smidgen of skepticism?   Do we think that one tiny child can really change the whole world?  After all, the shepherds would go back, praising God, telling others...then what?  It was not like the next day Jesus was a grown adult, preaching and healing people.  

If scholars are right, Jesus' ministry began some time when he was thirty years old.  How many times did those shepherds think they were crazy for going to the stable that night?  How many of the shepherds even lived to hear Jesus preach?  

That is the foolish part of joy.  It is not some scientifically sound hypothesis, joy is an emotion we feel.  Joy is about the moments when hope, peace, and love all come together...even if for a few fleeting moments...to sing in harmony.  Joy is.  It should not be defined or confined to words.  Joy is what will stir in the air tonight when congregation after congregation sings Silent Night.  Joy is what will fill people who come together tomorrow (not the gifts).  Joy is what the church can offer the world because it is not based on what comes wrapped in packages or tied up with bows.  Joy is what we find in our connection with God and in our connection to others.  Not that life is all chocolate rivers...but once we taste God's love or feel that love evaporate from our forehead at our baptism, we know the profound truth from the African-American spiritual:
"This little joy I have...the world didn't give to me.  Oh...this little joy I have...the world didn't give to me.  This little joy I have...the world didn't give to me.  The world didn't give it...so the world can't take it away."

And yes, Charlie, that is one of many true and beautiful promises of Christmas!

Blessings ~

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Love part two...Joy part one


In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

This is one of my favorite carols.  First, and foremost, we can be almost certain that Jesus, being born in the Middle East, did not have a white Christmas.  To be sure, it can be very cold in the evenings when the sun goes down, but snow is not the norm.  Second, for someone who has spent most of his life in the Northern part of the United States, I know what it is like to celebrate Christmas in a different climate than Jesus lived.  Here snow has fallen snow on snow, and we anticipate getting more tonight.  The earth is hard, frozen by pellets of rain that fell yesterday.

Winter slows you down.  It slows you down in terms of how fast you can drive.  It slows you down when you try to walk on icy sidewalks.  It slows you down as you take refuge in your home to escape the frosty winds that swirl around.   It was perhaps such a sensation that led Shakespeare to write, "Now is the winter of our discontent."  The grey conditions today can certainly unsettle us.  In a season when the earth sits under a blanket, dormant and resting; winter is a time of taking stock.  There is the dwindling of one year and the dawning of the next.  There is the convergence of the past, the present, and the future that is keenly felt in December and January.  

Brian McLaren looks at winter and attaches words like: "behold", "yes", and "silence".  At first, I was not sure I was with Brian on that.  I started thinking, sarcastically, "Behold another grey day".  Or imagined saying, "Yes another snow storm!"  However, I could think of a moment for the last one with three simple words: "School is canceled"...cue stunned silence of parents.

Yet, I think there is a beauty to behold even in the bleak midwinter, but it comes after living in the seasons.  It comes after beholding the first crocus that came up last March; it comes after beholding the green of grass; it comes after beholding the warmth of a summer's day and the refreshing cool of a swimming pool; it comes after nature's pyrotechnics show known autumn.  Then, there is snow on snow.  There is a beauty to that.  It leads not to a loud, enthusiastic "YES", but one that we whisper as we stare out the window.  There is an affirmation from God to slow down and savor.  There is a hope found in the sound of a snow flake softly landing on the ground.  

To be sure, Jesus might not have experienced that, but it is worth finding joy and hope in the seasons of life.  And perhaps if we open ourselves to the wisdom of every day...no matter the date or the weather...we might sense a trace of God's grace stirring.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Peace Part Two...Love Part One

For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old, when, with the ever circling years, shall come the time foretold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and all the world give back the song which now the angels sing.  It Came upon the Midnight Clear
 
 
There is an acute awareness of time as people of faith approach the manger.  We are awaken to the reality that it is the final month of the year.  We are alert to our own age, that there was another candle on our birthday cake.  We are aware that no matter how many calendars we receive in the mail or buy...we don't control our time as much as we like to believe.  There is a vulnerability this time of year.  Perhaps that is why we hustle and bustle every where, trying our best to cram life into the dwindling days of the year.  Yet, when we gaze upon God's love dancing in the Christ's eyes as he lay in the manger we confront God's vulnerability.  God who chose downward, rather than upward, mobility to break into our world.  It is good to pause and embrace our own limitations, rather than running from them as this final month circles around us.
 
God's time is always different that our time.  While we know that, we'd rather God conform to our calendars.  Advent should awaken us to the importance of time.  Advent is about awakening to God's movement, God's light shining forth.  We practice this in Advent, not so we can be done with it until next December...but so that as we enter into 2014 we will continue such awareness. 
 
Jesus was raised within the Jewish understanding of time; where God's time/realm ran parallel to human realm (earth) and time.  Those two often intersected in amazing ways.  God's realm was not just some heaven light years away.  The prophets of old tried to point people's attention toward that truth.  But, our human capacity for complacency is as true today as when Isaiah tried to stir up a sense of urgency before the exile. 
 
How is God's light shined in your life these past seventeen days?  Have you noticed God's movement?  And has that been in expected ways or has there been serendipitous surprises?
 
For me, one place I felt God's presence was this past weekend.  On Saturday, our church hosted a concert featuring the music of this sacred season.  It was wonderful to sit surrounded by the melody of carols that proclaim the truth of Emmanuel ~ God with us and for us.  Then on Sunday, our children showed us beautiful pieces of artwork that depicted the birth of Jesus.  It was amazing two days of creativity.
 
When we immerse and open ourselves to that, we encounter peace.  When we immerse and open ourselves to God, we are spurred to share those moments with others, which is an expression of holy love.
 
I hope you will find moments in this final week before gathering around the manger to be at peace and moments to share God's love.  And may such practices not cease when we turn the calendar to 2014, but guide us every day in the New Year.
 
Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Peace Part One


And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Isaiah 9:6

There is a competition in my mind over which of the first two Advent words: "hope" or "peace" really is more elusive and odd for the church to proclaim in our current world.  On the one hand, hope is fleeting and fading.  The nightly news seems bent on sharing story after story that awaken hopelessness within our hearts.  On the other, peace might as well reside on Pluto for it feels that distant from our world.  There is too much violence and reliance on the military out of fear for us to really embody/live peace.

Part of the Advent paradox is that what the church is proclaiming is the already and not yet.  Hope is here because of God's willingness to slip into skin and walk among us.  We feel peace in moments when we encounter an unceasing grace and unconditional love in hugs of others.  But the reality is that hope and peace are not full time residents in our world...although I believe God is.  Our faith lives on the corner of already and not yet: God has already broken into our world...God has already conquered death through life....God has already showed us how to live with love and kindness and walk humbly with God in the life of Jesus.  Yet...things are not all rosy and merry and bright. There is a "not yet" when we honestly name there is too much brokenness.  There is too much treating people as less than beloved children of God.  We live on the corner between the truth of these two realities.

What ends us happening...especially this time of year...is in the hustle and bustle of trying to do too much and cram life into these dwindling days of 2013, we end up feeling distant from either hope or peace.  Rather than trying to slow down, breathe, and truly stay awake to God, we want to take matters into our own hands.  We will show Christmas this year who is really in charge.  I will make my gifts or buy them from fair trade organizations.  I will finally read that devotional I bought.  At moments like that I remember the truth of Dr. Suess, because the Grinch thought he could control Christmas too!

Perhaps Christmas is about surrender to God's presence in our lives.  Christmas is our humble acknowledgement of Emmanuel, God with us here.  Here!  In this beautiful and broken world.  Here!  In this kitchen filled with dirty dishes and burnt cookies.  Here!  In the exhaustion you might feel almost half way through December.  

I could say more...but maybe listening to the carol, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" is even better.   I love The Piano Guys and this might just be my favorite rendition!  May this open you to a trace of God's grace! Click here to listen and see them offer this beautiful carol!

Blessings ~


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hope ~ Take Two



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 first week of Advent is grounded and guided by the single word and light of "Hope".  In the English language we often use the words "hope" and "wish" interchangeably.  As a random example, I hope I get a new ipad for Christmas...oh how I wish my wife reading this blog post would heed my not-so-subtle wish for a new ipad.  See how that works?  Hint...Hint...Hint.
 
Yet, within the life of faith, I think there is a difference between hope and wishes.  It is a difference rooted in what God is doing in our midst right here and now; and what we wish God would do at some future point to conspire/conform to our expectations.
 
I realize this might be splitting syntax hairs or playing with words, but I also think that it matters as we journey to Bethlehem.  What exactly are we expecting when we step inside the stable this year to stand in the straw amid the cows and shepherds?  Do we expect to see just another baby?  Will we gaze upon the Christ child and think, "Yup, just as I had thought!" 
 
Or are we willing to be surprised by what we encounter on the road to the manger this year?  John Claypool has said that "surprise" is just another name for God.  Are we surprised by God any more?  Or has our faith gotten into such a well-worn rut that nothing about church/religion/worship/ encounters with God has the ability to leave us speechless?
 
Surprise is important for our understanding of hope because if we only see what we thought we'd see, then maybe we need to be willing to look again.  Hope is about being open to what God is doing, how God is slowly bringing about new life in our world, even here and now.  It is hard to hold onto hope.  It can feel like sand slipping between our fingers.  The more tightly we grasp, the more frustrating it is to see the tiny grains still fall to the ground.  But, am I only seeing the pile of sand congregating on the floor?  Or perhaps do I see the sand that is so stuck to the palm of my hand it would take real effort to get every tiny piece brushed away?  Anyone who has ever been to the beach knows that sand has a glue like quality to it...along with the ability to get in all the wrong places!
 
Brian McLaren has said that where we look will determine what we see.  What we are expecting will impact what we actually observe.  If I am looking for evidence of a broken world, I will see it.  If I am looking for signs of hope, then there is a possibility to see that as well! 
 
Part of the reason why Hope is the important first word of Advent is because if we are not clear about what we hope we might see when we get to Bethlehem this year, we run the risk of seeing only what we've seen every other December.  But the truth is we are different people than we were last year at this time.  Events, experiences, and encounters in 2013 have left a mark upon us.  The road to Bethlehem, while vague familiar, has unexpected twists and turns, if we are awake, alert and aware.  If we are on auto-pilot, however, chances are we will still arrive at a stable, but we may have missed the journey!
 
What I hope for this year is to be aware of God's movement in my life and to hold onto the promise that God is full of surprises.  I will reserve my wishes for packages under the Christmas tree knowing that even if my wishes go unrealized (hence no ipad), I still will encounter something much more beautiful and fulfilling and hopeful this December: God's presence.
 
May the traces of God's presence stir in your life this week.
 
Blessings ~
 
 
 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Hope

 

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5
 
The four Sundays prior to Christmas are part of the church season called, "Advent".  It is a time to prepare for the birth of Jesus.  But how exactly do you do that?  What kind of game plan or plotting would you come up with to prepare to welcome Jesus?  Do you need a banner for that?  Maybe a band?  Or is this just some kind of intellectual exercise?
 
During Advent we use words in church like, "awake", "alert" and "aware".  It sounds like we are being hyper-vigilant or overly anxious about all of this.  Especially when we think about all the other items on our to-do list like: shopping, sending cards, making cookies, attending parties, listening to and singing carols.  And that is just what I hope to do this week!
 
Do those activities help you prepare?  Do you dread some of those tasks?  Maybe the company Christmas party causes you to have a pit in your stomach that isn't just about the food that will be served.  Do you sometimes find yourself wondering why?
 
While those moments when we question why don't always make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside (like we sometimes have lead ourselves to believe we should during the month of December),  why is a very important Advent question.
 
Why does God choose to come to us in the form of a vulnerable infant?  Why do we try to cram so much into the last four weeks of the year?  And especially, why would the church light one Advent candle and call it, "Hope"?
 
Those are good questions.  And I certainly do not have definitive answers for them.  I have some guesses and hunches.  I think God's ways are not our ways.  God says "no" to power systems both at Christmas time and Easter time.  God says that love is often seen in our world as weaker than might and military force but we have to make choices about where we will place our trust, which way will we travel?  I think we tend to over extend ourselves this time of year, because like those late nights before a test/project was due in college, we don't want to enter a new year with regrets or "should haves".  Plus, the frenzied pace of December has become such a cultural force that it actually takes more energy to resist getting caught up in the hoopla than to just go with the flow.  I think the church lights one candle, calls it "Hope", because it is a beautiful action that might actually cause us to stop in our tracks!
 
We call the first Sunday of Advent, "Hope" because in Jesus the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him.  We have hopes for our lives...for our families...for our churches...for our community.  In fact, one of our fears might be that our hopes will go unrealized or unfulfilled.  That certainly makes my stomach churn like I just ate too much of the bacon wrapped sausages at a party! 
 
Can we be honest in this the last month of 2013 about our hopes and our fears?  Can we take prayerful time, light one candle, and sit in silence with God who hears those hopes and fears?  I hope you can.  I pray you will.  And I pray you will sense a trace of God's grace in that.
 
Blessings ~