Monday, December 29, 2014

Dwindling Days



There is something about this time in-between Christmas and New Year's that invites reflection.  Perhaps it is because everyone and their brother is doing a "Year in Review" or Countdowns of music and highest grossing movies.  We pause, we look back at the past 365 days, and we at 2015 like a blank canvass beckoning us to create something new, different.  That is what resolutions are after all.  They are our attempt to re-create, re-imagine, and re-purpose our present life in a new way.  I think it is healthy to look back at the last year, but not only as a trip down memory lane.  Rather, ask yourself, when did you feel most fully alive?  For me, it was on our summer vacation to Disney World.  Yes, it was hot...Florida tends to be that way in the summer.  Yes, it was crowded...Disney tends to be that way, almost always.  But there was something about the ease of laughter in our family, we did not try to do it all, we took it easy ourselves.  Unfortunately, that vacation pace did not last.  What moment did you feel most fully alive this past year?  What was it about that moment?  

It is also healthy to look ahead.  How does that moment of feeling fully alive guide you into the days ahead as you put up your 2015 calendar?  For me, it is a reminder to laugh, to stop trying to control every second, and to be more open to the natural flow of God's presence in my life.  To be sure this does not come easy to my Type A, hyper-aware of every imperfection usual way of life.  But, when I lean into a more grace-filled and grace-flow way of life, I do feel more fully alive.  Now don't get me wrong, it still bothers me when the lift chair at the 11 pm Christmas Eve service starts beeping out of control!  But I also know that one moment does not need to define or ruin everything.  Rather it is a reminder that I live in the messy middle, the joyful tensions, and the real stuff of life.  Or to quote one of my favorite theologians, "At some point your plan for personal salvation will fail you."  The key word here is "your".  Resolutions are often about being in constant control of diet or time or even happiness.  I will be happy, you say, with that tiny vein in your neck visibly pulsing.  We cannot will ourselves to happily ever after.  Grace happens.  It is serendipitous and surprising.  That is not to say we just sit back and live life on cruise control.  We need to listen and respond faithfully.  We need to be open and ready to get caught up in what God is doing.  Then, we need to let God be God.

I pray there is more than a trace of God's grace in these dwindling days of 2014 and as 2015 dawns around us.  I pray you sense God's presence in a way that opens you to be fully alive and to let the hope, peace, joy, and love of God entering the world at Christmas guide you every day next year.

Until next year...blessings and Happy New Year ~ 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ponder


So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  Luke 2:16-20

I take heart that the first Christmas was far from perfect.  It was messy and inconvenient.  It was stressful...and I thought I had it bad making sure the bulletin was error free and all the candles were ready to be lit!  The first Christmas was not perfectly wrapped or a Norman Rockwell painting.  To quote the Grinch, the very first Christmas, "Came without ribbon, it came without bags, it came without packages, boxes or bags!"  Good to remember when tonight, someone cries because they are tired, or Aunt Bertha has a bit too much liquor, or life does not seem to go according to the script you wrote in your head over the last four weeks.  Take heart... Jesus' birth was not exactly picture perfect despite all that great religious art.  God works with our best intentions, God works with the messiness of our lives.  God rolls up God's sleeves, sinks God's finger tips into the over cooked turkey and the bad Jell-O salads and all the other miscues of life.  

But somewhere, we've taken all the messiness out of the manger.  We've taken all the drama and tension out of the first Christmas and left only a soft-focused Hallmark cards of sugary sweetness.  Can we, to quote Elsa the Frozen Princess, "Let it Go!"?  

I love that Mary ponders all this in her heart.  Ponders the dirty, drafty, dusty stable.  Ponders Joseph over there wondering what in the world he has gotten himself into.  Ponders shepherds standing there before her talking too fast about angels in the field (Yeah, right, angels appeared to you shepherds, my sarcastic side would say, were they riding ponies??).  To ponder is not just to contemplate or to act like I did in my Philosophy 101 class, stroking my chin and saying, "Ah yes, Plato's ideas shed light onto the depravity of the human condition...got an A for comments like that!  No Mary's ponder is not the image of the Thinker...it is the ability to hold together two complex, even contradictory, ideas with grace.  To hold together that God would enter the world in this way, to these people is a contradiction that needs some serious pondering today.  

I pray tonight you will find ways to sit with Mary and ponder.  Ponder how God is moving in your life, maybe in ways that cause you to scratch your head.  Ponder the ways you hear God's voice in that annoying neighbor, who makes good points.  Ponder the ways God is calling you to do something new and different and even bold in 2015.  And let your pondering open you to the traces of God's grace that are all around us.

Merry Christmas!  May the hope, peace, joy, and love of this season sustain you and guide you every day in 2015.

Many blessings~

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Hopes and Fears


And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  Luke 2:8-12


As if I need to prove that I am a child of the 80s, I cannot hear this passage of Luke without the voice of Linus from A Charlie Brown Christmas saying these words.  Remember the scene?  Charlie has just lost it...have that feeling yet this December when out shopping or your hand numb from writing cards or having one more thing to do?  Charlie exclaims..."Doesn't anyone know the true meaning of Christmas?"  And Linus, asks for the lights, please, and recites this passage from Luke.

I agree with Linus that the true meaning of Christmas is the angels singing to the shepherds. God decides the best messenger of God breaking into our world in the flesh is not George Clooney or Oprah; but smelly shepherds who were considered thieves; who did not have homes.  Would you really listen to a homeless person telling you God was doing something amazing or would you cross over to the other side of the road?

To be honest, if I was in the shepherd's sandals, I don't know what I would do.  I am not at my best when the fight or flight part of my primate brain is touched by fear and confrontation.  I can only imagine how the shepherds' hearts pounded and blood rushed past their ears; throbbing and maybe only hearing some of the angels' song.  I might have not went to the manger.  I might have stayed in the field where life was normal and try to find my happy place, calm down, and maybe do some deep breathing.  Or maybe I just would have ran in whatever direction my feet would take me...to Bethlehem or Egypt or anywhere...just get me outta there.

I give thanks that some of the shepherds made it to the manger.  I give thanks that some of them found their voice to share what God was doing.  I give thanks that I am still surprised by how God moves in our world.  Not through celebrity endorsement or preachers with perfect hair...but in messy moments.  Which is a good reminder that the first Christmas was messy, smelly, incredibly inconvenient...so maybe your Christmas gathering is more reflective of Scripture than you thought.  I pray that we can let these words of Luke wash over us anew and afresh this week as we take the final few steps to the stable.  Whether you hear these words in the voice of Linus or your minister growing up or your grandmother who read them to you while you sat on her lap on Christmas Eve, I pray these words will make all the difference this week and every week in 2015.

May the traces of God's grace sustain you as we inch closer to Bethlehem.

Blessings ~ 

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 ~