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 ~