Thursday, December 31, 2020

New Years Eve

 


New Year’s Eve can in some ways feel like we are on the threshold of something new.  Today is the cusp of beginning to paint on new canvass or turning the page to a new chapter.  At the same time, there are things we carry with us into the New Year.  Tomorrow morning, January 1, 2021, will still have some of the lingering leftovers of 2020.  We are still facing a pandemic and polarization.  And.  And there is possibility and potential.  And there is hope that is willing to see what is and what can be.  As Maya Angelou said, “If you must look back, do so forgivingly. If you must look forward, do so prayerfully. However, the wisest thing you can do is be present in the present... gratefully.”  Here is one of my favorite prayer/poems by Jan Richardson

BLESSING THE THRESHOLD

This blessing has been waiting for you for a long time.

While you have been making your way here,

this blessing has been gathering itself, making ready, biding its time, praying.

This blessing has been polishing the door, oiling the hinges, sweeping the steps,

lighting candles in the windows.

This blessing has been setting the table as it hums a tune from an old song it knows,

something about a spiraling road and bread and grace.

All this time it has kept an eye on the horizon, watching, keeping vigil, hardly aware of how

it was leaning itself in your direction.

And now that you are here, this blessing can hardly believe its good fortune

that you have finally arrived, that it can drop everything at last to fling its arms wide

to you, crying welcome,

welcome,

welcome.

God's love be with you now and every day in 2021.  Blessings ~~


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

New Years Week

 


Alongside the joy of s’mores I talked about yesterday, I led more funerals this year than I have in any other year before.  Wait.  Don’t quit reading, yet.  I know this may sound like a topic you would prefer not to read, but in keeping with Richard Rohr’s quote on great suffering being a teacher, I want to share five lessons I hold from being with people in grief this year.  I pray these words will resonate with you as truth from this year.

1. Grief is hard and we are all grieving.  Some of you are grieving the death of a spouse or family member.  Some are grieving the loss of a way of life.  Some are grieving relationships.  There is anticipatory grief where we know that someone we care about is about to die.  There is ambiguous grief, like a divorce, where the person still is alive, but we no longer are connected.  There is a cultural/collective grief around the pandemic, systemic racism and discrimination, and still lingering with the election.  There is good grief where we cry cathartic tears. There is grief where we push down the pain and refuse to deal with it.  Yet, we need to name and claim our wounds and wants.  Our brains are wired and will shout, “Don’t!! It is too difficult!”  I would suggest that having a safe space with a few people to check in on how your soul is doing can be one of the most important gifts we can offer each other.

2. Grief can be cumulative and past wounds will come up when you start to share with others.  The cliché about opening the flood gates is true.  You name and notice one pain and suddenly all that is unprocessed within you will raise its hand wanting to be called upon.  I still grieve my mother’s death over six years ago.  It is there within me and has become a part of me.  Walking through her death and all that was unresolved has begun to help me in moments like this year when I am swimming in so much grief with others.  I try to listen, and I especially try to love and remember that grief can make us feel isolated but we are not alone!  Others will walk with us through the valley.

3. This year, there were a fair number of funerals for people who loved to be on the water.  I often returned to this quote, “Sometimes God calms the sailor.  And sometimes God calms the storm.”  Sometimes God gives me strength to navigate my boat even as the storm rages on outside my control.  Sometimes God causes the storm to pass and calm waters around me to arrive.  Both are a gift.

4. There is a playbook for grief.  You can Google Elizabeth Kubler Ross or David Kessler to learn more.  There are patterns to grief like feeling the brain fog of disorientation; moments when waves of grief knock you over unexpectedly; and times emotions come up and out at the most inconvenient times. Secondly, there exceptions to everything I just said.  Your grief is as unique as your fingerprint.  To hold the beautiful tension of the ways we are connected to each other in shared grief and that we never, never fully know exactly what someone else is feeling are both true.  Finally, if I could, I would forever tear up and toss out the phrase, “I know exactly how you feel.”  We don’t, but we can offer the space and grace to listen alongside someone as she or he tells us (as imperfectly as the words may feel) what their soul is trying to express.

5. Finally, grief is fierce and faithful work.  I think of Elizabeth in Luke’s story.  Elizabeth lets loose with a joyful shout and blesses Mary.  Elizabeth knew grief well.  Year after year of not being pregnant after trying and realizing there is much beyond her control.  The layer of thick dust on the dream of being a mother.  The pain of an ache as she went to baby showers or held the infant of another.  Grief comes in many forms.  Grief calls us to the fierce and faithful work of our souls.  Your grief is paint longing for a canvass.

My prayer is that these insights might awaken within you wisdom from your own soul into how you are painting your grief on the canvass called, “Your life” in these days. 

Prayer: God who heard Jesus cry from the garden and the cross, listen to our tears this day we pray.  Amen.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

New Years Week

 


Roasting s’mores around a campfire.  That is one moment that warms my heart and stirs my soul from this past year.  I’ll explain.  Our family had rented a cabin in a small town in Georgia.  We needed to get our kids out of their bedrooms, we needed to stop staring at the same four walls, we needed a change of pace and to breathe some different air.  We had been searching for somewhere we felt safe to get away.  Finally, we stumbled across this cabin with several hiking trails at nearby state parks softly whispering our names.  The cabin had a pool table, foosball, an indoor basketball hoop, and a firepit outside.  It felt like we were taking a leap of faith to leave what was known behind and venture out at a time when an invisible virus could be lurking anywhere.   But, our mental health said we needed to get away from the heat and humidity and feeling cooped up inside.

We went.  We had a blast.  We laughed.  We played games.  We went tubing down a river.  We reset our souls with relaxation in a year when stress and strain and change had been the only tune we were dancing to.  And, of course, we roasted and ate s’mores around a campfire.

2020 has taught me the lesson that I am not as in charge or in control as I like to think.  There are many things beyond my ability that I cannot snap my fingers and change.  No matter how tightly I grasp or cling, there are many things that are like sand and will slip through my fingers.  I cannot change someone else.  I cannot stop people from hurting each other with words or actions.  I cannot magically wave a wand so that everyone is vaccinated. 

At the same time, I do have responsibility for my response, that is what I can control.  I can acknowledge the joy and anger and fear and hope that stir within me.  I can be curious about why I am feeling this way or doing that action.  I can listen to my own life.  There is no separation between your spiritual life and your actual life.  God doesn’t just show up on Sunday mornings at the prescribed hour you prefer to worship.  God shows up disguised as your own life, every day.  And somethings even in that person who pushes all your buttons!  To listen both to the moments of joy; to accept what we can change and what we cannot and the wisdom to know the difference; and to realize that this year will continue to leave a lingering impression that will last long beyond putting a new calendar up this Friday.  There is both gratitude and grief in this year – both can be our teachers.

Prayer: God keep showing up disguised as my life today.  Amen.


Monday, December 28, 2020

New Years Week

 


We have arrived at the threshold of the last week of 2020.  Some of you just mumbled and muttered to yourself, “Thanks be to God” or “Good riddance!”  Or maybe you find yourself start singing, “So long! Farewell! Aufwiedersehn! Goodnight,” from The Sound of Music.  That song is now going to be stuck on repeat in your mind all day long, you are welcome.  Seriously, we will remember this year, and not necessarily for warm, happy reasons.  A pandemic that torn up and tossed out the window the playbook of how we live our lives with vacations canceled and special events postponed.  The murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and too many other young African-Americans that shined a light bright on the systemic racism in our country and the hard, holy work that needs to be done.  An election that spotlighted how polarized and distrustful we are of each other.  Economic turmoil of jobs loss; people continuing to endure suffering and struggling to put food on the table or afford the roof over their heads.  For us in the church, worship and ministry shifted entirely online.  If 2020 was a movie it would be nominated for Golden Raspberry (which if you don’t know is the opposite of the Oscars for universally panned and awful movies).  

But wait, as Richard Rohr points out, what causes us to grow is both moments of great love and great suffering.  “Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith and eventually into what can only be called universal truth. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering, as we see in Jesus. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers.”

Sit with that quote for just a moment.

I know we live in a world that overvalues success.  We always want to be thriving and striving for more and what is new/next.  Where improvement and forward progress are rewarded and any stumbling or steps backwards are personal failures with blame and shame.  To hold great suffering as a teacher seems counter-culture to everything we have been taught and told.  

This week I want us to lean into the lessons and learnings from this past year.  I will share some insights I have from the last twelve months.  

For today, I want you to take a piece of paper and reflect on your year.  You can start with the highlights and lowlights of your experiences and encounters.  But then, move on to books or movies that still stay with you.  List moments of simple joy that sing forth from your soul.  New experiences (like preaching from my living room) that I didn’t even know were part of my future last January.  Reflect on your life today as you continue to burn the candles of hope, peace, love, and joy with the Christ light at the center of all that has been, is, and will be.  

Prayer: God open my heart to all that I carry with me from this year into the next, to notice the truth of Psalm 23 that You are there from mountain top moments to valley dwelling and every place in-between.  Amen. 


Friday, December 25, 2020

Christmas Day

 


God of Goodness, we give you praise the light of your presence in the ordinary birth of the child. We give you praise that unobtrusively you are in the center of human affairs, involved in the struggle of life, and sharing human experience. We give you praise that out of compassion you take our part, and open to us a new way of life. We pray that this day we shall be able to see its true glory. - Caryl Micklem, Contemporary Prayers for Public Worship


I pray for God to meet you in the midst of your life today.

I pray for the holy to hover and hum in the midst of the less-than-perfectness of this Christmas; the could have beens and should have beens of this year.

I pray for hope of Christmas to be found in phone calls and Zoom calls and moments of connection that let us know that one of the most beautiful parts of humanity is sharing our support, care for each other, especially this year.

I pray for the peace of Christmas to be found in gazing at the lights on our tree, listening to music, quietly looking out at the world that is both familiar and strangely different. 

I pray for the love of Christmas to burn brightly within you and around you; to be renewed as the way God works and what God is up to.  Open us, O God to You as the composer and conductor of life.  Awaken us to join and lend our voice, actions and presence to Your sacred symphony.  Help us find the shepherd-like courage to tell the good news of great joy from the mountains.

I pray for the joy of Christmas to be found anew and afresh, especially in serendipitous and surprising ways on this day.  

Most of all, I pray that the mystery and marvel of Christmas would continue to ground and guide you every day this year and as a New Year dawns in one week.

Let the glory of God’s presence here and now shape our soul for the living out of these days.  Amen. – Rev. Wes Bixby, Christmas morning 2020

Merry Christmas and God's love to you~~

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Advent Week Four: Christmas Eve

 

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  Luke 2:20

The shepherds went back home forever changed.  I wonder if they returned to their normal life which no longer looked the way it did before they encountered and experienced the One who has eternal love dancing in his eyes.  Did they go back to the field where the angels had sung to them, but that holy hymn will forever hum in their hearts?  I wonder this because I wonder if tonight might cause a shepherd-like shift in my soul?  Can I return to normal life, especially after this year?

Tonight we tell the sacred story that is at the heart of this year.  The question every year is the same, how will tonight change everything?  Are you and I willing to let the truth of Emmanuel, God with us and for us stir your way of being?  Or will we force ourselves back to familiar patterns especially because everything has felt out-of-whack this year? 

We are on the threshold of the mystery and marvel of God’s grand entry into this world.  We are about to encounter the holy on a Christmas Eve unlike any in our lifetime.  Can you and I come with anticipation?  Will we come with expectation and open hearts to God’s presence moving in our midst?  Or do we just write this year’s Christmas Eve off as unusual and a story we will tell next year when we can return to our normal schedule Christmas celebration?

This night still changes everything.  This night, especially this year, has a different potency and power and possibility.  This night can still evoke our praise and glorifying God.  This is still a holy and silent night of God’s love entering our hearts, homes, and whole world.  Deep in my heart, I do believe, that God does arrive in our lives and gives us strength to sustain us every day.  I pray for each of you that you will find your inner-shepherd voice to sing out wherever you are. 

Jesus our Christ is born.

This changes everything.

This changes me.

Prayer: O come Thou Long expected Jesus, meet me in the hopes and fears, help me sing out with Hark! The herald angel choir that Your hope, peace, love and joy are more than words; this is the truth that is a light to our lives.  Amen.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Advent Week 4: Joy


But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2:19

Here we are on the day before Christmas Eve.  I know tomorrow will be different than years past.  I know Christmas Day will be different than years past.  I know that I grieve not being able to sing together, the holy hum of the sanctuary, the beautiful processional of children with the creche scene, the moments that the tiny hairs on my neck stand on end, and the joy of being able to wish everyone a “Merry Christmas” at the end of the 11 pm service.

I know that this year is different and difficult.  Yet, I return to the truth that the first Christmas was difficult too.  The challenges Mary and Joseph faced, their fierce faithfulness, and their prayerful pondering sings to my heart this year. 

To ponder is to pause.  To ponder is to be open.  To ponder is actively wait, watching in wonder or with curiosity for what is unfolding around you and with you.  To ponder means that we stand in the straw next to the shepherds steeped and surrounded by the sacred.  To ponder is worship without words but from the depths of our souls.  To ponder is the prayer posture I want to bring to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day this year.

To ponder is to reflect on what has been.  Take time today to look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly of this last year.  Take time today to see what God has been up to in your life over the last twelve months. 

To ponder is to reflect on what is, right now, in this present moment, on this day before Christmas Eve.  To open your ears, eyes, hearts, and whole life to God who is soaking and saturating every second of our lives.

To ponder is to look forward to what awaits us, not with fear, but a faithfulness born of the promise of Emmanuel, God with us and for us each and every day.

To ponder is my invitation to you right now.

Prayer: Here I am, God.  Here You are, God.  Here we are together.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Advent Week Four: Joy

 


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. Luke 2:17-18

Who exactly does the “all” in the verse above refer to?  Were Mary and Joseph amazed by what the shepherds said?  To be sure, the shepherd’s story of how a choir of angels suddenly start singing to you, telling you to go search for a baby in a barn laying in a manger, and then that the shepherds were able to find them is pretty amazing.

Or maybe, the shepherds after knocking on other barn doors had congregated a crowd of people with them.  “Come on,” they said, “We are searching for the Savior in a dirty, dusty, drafty barn.”  That would probably convince others to join in, I say with sarcasm in my voice.

No, I think the “all” refers to you and me.  We are amazed by this story each and every time we tell it to others.  We are amazed at the way God works and what God is up to in the world comes in the form of the fierce and faithful Mary and Joseph; comes in the form of shepherds; comes in the form of a grand entrance in a barn.  A barn!  We are amazed that God moves in the lives of those who are on the fringe and fray then and now.  We are amazed by God’s hope, peace, love, and joy that burn brightly before us and within us.  We are amazed of the powerful and powerful pregnant pause shared between Mary and Elizabeth.  We are amazed that God enters the world through an unwed teenager who is the God-bearer.  We are amazed that God invites us to let God’s love loose through our lives in these days.

I invite you today to pause and to ponder the amazement you have sensed around you.  Make a list and litany of the ways hope seem possible with a vaccine now being administered; with worship still happening; with moments your heart is strangely warmed.  Make a list and litany of the way peace has been discovered within and around you when you looked at Christmas lights or make an altar or wrote prayers for yourself in the coming year.  Make a list and litany of the way love has been let loose to you and through you, then thank those whose love makes a difference.  May a list and litany of joy that you feel when you sing along to Christmas Carols and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Our lives flow on in endless song even here and now.  May that truth surround you and sustain you every single day.

Prayer: Gracious God move in my life with an amazing grace and help me find my voice to name the ways Your presence makes all the difference.  Amen. 


Monday, December 21, 2020

Advent Week Four: Joy


 

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  Luke 2:15-16

I wonder what kind of GPS did the shepherds have to help navigate them to find Jesus laying away in a manger?  We have conflated and combined Matthew’s story of a star leading the Wise Ones to Jesus with Luke’s narrative.  Re-read the passage above.  Just as there is no donkey and no innkeepers who refuse to rent Mary and Joseph a room; there is no mention of a “star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright, westward leading still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect sight.”

Moreover, I don’t know about you, but when I go with haste, I tend to make a lot of wrong turns.  When I am in a hurry and life gets blurry that is when I have unforced error after error. 

Moreover, what compelled the shepherds to overcome their fear and go searching?  That is really my question in these dwindling days of December.  How do I overcome the fear that sits and stirs and simmers in my soul to step out faithfully in search of the sacred that is also searching and waiting for me?  It is so much easier to stay where I am comfortable spiritually and intellectually and emotionally.  Our brains are hardwired to tell us to stay put.  Our brains will say things like, “Whoa!  Let’s be careful not to put the cart before the horse.  Slow down there, Wes, do you realize how much work that will be to dismantle your racism?  To try to change the world?  To really let God’s love loose in this world?  Can you really make a difference?  Do you know how many people will resist you?  Why not just binge watch something on Netflix instead?”

My mind might not really say all that, but it does calculate and compute the cost of trying to change and can tend to overemphasize how many obstacles there will be.  The truth is that there will be obstacles to letting hope, peace, love, and joy loose in our lives in these days and every day in 2021.   There are costs.  People will react and respond in less-than-positive and support ways.  We will be called, “Foolish” or “Naive” or worse!  We will feel that foolishness, we will see how long it takes to make a difference, and we may get lost along the way.

I wonder if the shepherds took a wrong turn.  If they had to knock on every barn door, peak and peer inside to see if by chance there a baby was inside or just the curious stares of cows saying, “Hey (or hay), I am trying to eat here!”  And I wonder if the shepherds knocked on wrong doors, “Um, we were just wondering if the Son of God just happened to be born in your barn?”  Confused person who just opened their door to a group of shepherds, “Come again?”

I really want to know did they bring their sheep along with them!!

Perhaps it is good that Luke simply says they went, the shepherds figured it out along the way.  They kept on searching because you and I keep on searching.  The promise of this part of the Christmas story is that in the midst of our wandering we find the wonder of the sacred right there in our lives.  May that truth be encountered and experienced by you and me on this the longest night of what has been the longest year.  And may God’s hope, peace, love, and joy enfold you now more than ever.

Prayer: Guide my feet, O God, while I run this race…help me slow down to a savory pace that lets my soul keep up today.  Amen. 


Friday, December 18, 2020

Advent Week Three: Love

 


And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Luke 2:14-15

Music is at the heart of this holy season.  This week I have quoted a few lines of Christmas carols.  As we wrap up this week, I want to share this beautiful Spiritual, “Rise up Shepherd and Follow”.  These words invite us into the movement of what God is up to.  A movement that starts within and flows forth from us.  Christmas has both an internal and external dimension.  Internally our hearts can be warmed by:

Christmas carols.

Cards.

Cookies.

Ornaments that have our parent’s and grandparent’s DNA on them.

Lights glowing and glistening in the night.

Presents piled under the tree.

Hold the figures of the Creche/Nativity Scene in our hands to hear each figure’s story.

Please add to this list to what stirs your soul.

But our souls are not cul-de-sacs for the spirit.  What we feel internally longs to be shared with those around us. 

So we try to sing together, even if it is on mute on Zoom.

We mail cards.

We bake cookies to leave on someone’s doorstep.

We share the story of ornaments on Zoom.

We go out looking at lights.

We shop online.

We let the story of each figure in the Nativity speak to our story.

The movement of Christmas is both inward and outward.  We are the shepherds still called to rise up and follow.  Or as another great Christmas Spiritual sings out, “Children Go Where I send Thee.” (see below)

I pray today and in these last days before Christmas the Spirit will sing to your soul and your soul will sing out with a joyful shout that the world is about to change!

Prayer: May that last sentence, O God, be embraced and embodied in my life this day and week.  Amen. 





Thursday, December 17, 2020

Advent Week Three: Love


 

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 2:11-12

“Unto you,” those ancient words are still the promise of God’s presence in our lives today.  Unto you, in your life, right now.  I know that our minds can raise all kinds of objections about how we don’t feel like we are thriving, remember all those fears you thought about yesterday?  Unto you, those two words are repeated in the two verses above emphasizing the importance.  Into the messiness and less-than-perfectness of our lives, Christ enters. 

The sign back then was a baby, a vulnerable infant under the watchful eye of his care-giver mother and father, lying in a feeding trough.  That is the sign?  Not exactly the Grand Canyon or neon flashing lights.  It is perplexing and puzzling that the sign of the sacred is a baby wrapped lovingly then laid where a baby should not be.  We have the ordinary in the baffling and bewildering.

I invite you today to see where that is truth for you.  Where is God moving in the ordinary in ways that don’t make sense?  What I am inviting you into is often called the trans-rational.  Our minds, our operating systems that were installed in school, have the software of the Enlightenment.  The way the Enlightenment dealt with mystery was to either explain it reasonably or throw it out as a figment of the imagination.

For example, Jesus didn’t really feed five thousand with just a few loaves and fishes.  Rather, everyone dug into their picnic baskets and shared some of what they had with everyone else.  Makes sense.

For example, Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea.  Rather, it was the reeds in the Red Sea that clogged the wheels Egyptians soldiers and caused the Israelites to be set free. 

I was trained in seminary to explain the Bible.  When I could not, don’t dare preach on that text.  Yet, what if there is truth beyond the truth our minds can contain and comprehend?  What if some experiences and encounters are contradictions and messy and leave us scratching our heads with both curiosity and frustration?  What if life isn’t linear and logical, but a circuitous route that makes you feel a bit dizzy and excited at the same time?

Unto you, right now in ways that may not make sense, God is entering in.  Unto you, in those less-than-perfect, even fear-filled, and frustrating moment, God is entering in.  That has been and still is what God is up to…if we are open to enter the mystery not to solve but to simply be.

Prayer: Unto me and to each person reading, O God, enter in we pray.  Amen. 


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Advent Week Three: Love

 

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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 2:9-10 

The angels swoop and stir amid the shepherds.  The angels sing out with a song to sooth the shepherds who tremble with terror.  When I read these two verses, I hear the brilliant line of O Little Town of Bethlehem, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  The hopes, your hopes this year.  The fears, your fears this year.  Both find space and place in Christ’s birth.

I feel like a shepherd in the field this year.  A bit lost and weary amid a year of so many changes.  Separated from those I care about and unable to share hugs with those I do get to see.  The challenges of navigate the world in such a time as this makes us all feel like we are traveling without a map, GPS, compass, or any kind of instrument that could help.  We are in uncharted territory.  There is that brilliant line of I Wonder as I Wander, sing it with me from your home,

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Savior did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

What do you wonder about as you wander around the world right now?

What hopes stir and sing within you?

What fears try to squelch or silent our hopes by belting out all that is wrong and broken right now?

I invite you to hold those questions amid the lights of “Hope,” “Peace,” and “Love” today and this week.  Don’t rush to respond, but simply sit with all that is stirred by each inquiry.  Ponder, like Mary, for a while; then step aside letting these questions sit on simmer in the back burner of your soul.

I pray that such wondering as we wander about our lives this day would bless us and open us to God’s hope, peace, and love in new ways.

Prayer: God of questions we don’t need to race/rush to answer, sit with us in still as we pray our hopes and fears of this year and for the coming year honestly with You.  Amen. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Advent Week Three: Love

 


In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2:8

God’s marketing strategy for spreading the good news of great joy for all people rests on shepherds.  God doesn’t call up Oprah or George Clooney or LeBron James for an endorsement.  God doesn’t take to Twitter or post on social media.  God doesn’t buy pop up ads to appear on our computer screens.  Pause for a moment to consider just how counter-cultural all this is:

First, an unwed, young woman named Mary is the God-bearer.

Second, Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, are forced to travel miles right when Mary is great with child.

Third, a drafty, dusty, dirty barn becomes the setting and scene where God makes God’s grand entry.

Fourth, the Christ-child is wrapped in strips of cloth lovingly by Mary (the God-care-giver) who then lays the holy child in a common feeding trough for animals. 

Finally, shepherds are the messengers – for the full weight of this head scratching/shaking statement to settle in, consider the following: 

Shepherds were lowly.  They were seen as thieves often letting their sheep graze on property that belonged to other people.  They didn’t just occupy the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder, they were not even allowed near the ladder to begin.  Shepherds would band together for protection and because of shared identity – they all felt like they were least and left out of society. 

In the Christmas narrative, God moves in mysterious ways that doesn’t make linear, logical sense.  We are so conditioned by our rational, Enlightenment, minds that we have removed all the contradictions and counter-cultural parts of the Christmas story.  Yet, if God moved at the fringes and fray back then, does that mean God is still moving in ways that challenge us, push our understandings beyond where we are comfortable, and call us to let go of our score cards of who is in and who is out?

If you have a Creche scene, I invite you to take the shepherd into your hand, lean in and listen to this important messenger of God.  What are the shepherds saying to you this year?  I think about the Christmas Carol, “Do You Hear What I Hear”.  One of the verses is:

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold
Let us bring him silver and gold

I pray that I would have open ears, heart, mind, and soul to sense what God is up to even now in my life, our church, and world.

Prayer: May the words above sink and sing from me this day, O God, I pray.  Amen. 


Monday, December 14, 2020

Advent Week Three: Love

 

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke 2:7 (KJV)

I invite you to take the Mary from your Creche/Nativity scene and hold her in your hand. As Mary ponders prayerfully, I encourage you to ponder too.  Can you picture Mary carefully wrapping Jesus in the swaddling clothes?   This reminds me of when I was as in soon-to-be parent-classes, I was taught how to, “burrito you baby.”  Honestly, that is what we were told and taught and had an instructor watch over us while my wife and I performed this task.  Clothes in this sense is the plural of cloth.  Jesus, like all babies, was wrapping in bands or strips of cloth.  One scholar said of Mary wrapping Jesus was, “Mary’s maternal care; she did for Jesus what any ancient Palestinian mother would have done for a newborn babe.  Ancient Jewish and Greek sources indicate that wrapping an infant in this way was common, ordinary, and meaningful”.  It showed care and was a claim of love for a child.  To not wrap your baby was a sign of neglect.  So, initially we see how Mary is both the God-bearer and God-care-giver. 

Then there is this tension of laying Jesus in a manger, an animal feeding trough.  This is not exactly the ideal crib for an infant.  In this one verse, the span of a few words, there juxtaposition of maternal care/concern in less-than-ideal conditions.  As you gaze at, hold in your hand, and ponder with the figure of Mary, let her witness sing and speak to this time.  To be sure, we are living in a less-than-ideal condition right now.  The pandemic is keeping us away from our usual Christmas festivities.  We are unable to travel or see family the way our heart desires.  We feel the polarization of our country, our inability to talk to each other.  All around us the world feels out-of-sync.

Yet, God didn’t wait until humans got it right to live among us, God came and still comes in the chaotic.  If that sounds familiar, it is one of the meanings of Genesis 1, God creating and in cahoots with chaos.  The swirling, stirring chaos in the beginning doesn’t just go away, it remains.  It is woven in our personal and communal lives.  Part of the divine story is chaos and creativity woven together.  In some ways God entering the world in a barn is a sign of chaos.  In some ways God upending the life an unwed young woman, Mary, is part of chaos.  Then, Mary, in a less-than-perfect place lovingly wraps Jesus in clothes and laid hm in a manger.  I pray your soul stirs at the mystery, uncertainty, the less-than-rational, the holy, the beautiful and broken all mixed into this one sacred verse.  For indeed, this one verse changes everything if only we let Mary sing her song to our souls.

Prayer: God as You entered the drafty and dusty places of the world then, enter now into the less-than-perfect chaos called, “My life,” right now.  Amen.


Friday, December 11, 2020

Advent Week Two: Peace

 


I invite you to light two candles: one for hope and one for peace as you read today’s meditation.

He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. Luke 2:5-6

Wait…where is the donkey?! Every Christmas pageant I have ever participated in or seen has Mary and Joseph with a donkey. The donkey is Mary’s ride so she doesn’t have to walk the 90 miles from Galilee to Bethlehem. The donkey is crucial and critical for comic relief. Plus, the donkey allows the crafty person in the congregation to turn a wagon into an animal for Joseph to pull down the center aisle. The donkey is classic and central to this story.

Who can I write to and make sure this oversight is corrected??

All that is to recognize that over the years we have added to the Christmas narrative. We have taken some creative liberties. The innkeepers who growl and groan and refuse Mary and Joseph a place to stay, not really in the story. The three Wise Ones who travel from afar are in Matthew, only that writer doesn’t specify three. My prayer in pointing out the differences between what is written in the Bible and written in our hearts will help us honestly re-examine what we know.

If there was not a donkey and they had to walk, Mary being nine months pregnant, that would have been hard. On some level we can connect with that difficult journey like trying to get through this year has been an emotional/spiritual/physical stress and strain on us? While not an exact equivalent, there is something there this year.

I also wonder if Mary walked and showed incredible resilience? How have you and I shown strength this year to keep on keeping on?

What if they didn’t knock on countless innkeeper doors, but tried to make the best of the space they were given? That connects to my heart.

What if the little Lord Jesus didn’t lay down his sweet head in the hay – away in a manger – but was fussy and noisy like all infants can be? This gives me space to name and claim my crankiness.

What if Mary and Joseph did not gaze sweetly at Jesus in the manger, but are as scared and unsure of what is happening as I was when my kids were born and have been this year?

Sometimes shifting how and what we see changes everything.

What other questions stir within you as you have been slowly savoring the story this week? What new ideas or insights might those questions provoke and evoke within your heart. Take time today to pray the questions, to let the words we have read this week work and wiggle in your soul. And may the One who is writing these words on our hearts this year sing to your soul today in this space.

Prayer: God help me let go of what I think needs to happen for the ways You are happening and hovering and humming in my life today. Amen.

 


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Advent Week Two: Peace

 


I invite you to light two candles: one for hope and one for peace as you read today’s meditation.

 All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  Luke 2:3-4

Joseph only gets an honorable mention in Luke’s gospel.  He first shows up in Luke 1:27. Well, not physically, just named as the betrothed of Mary.  The story that is really about Mary being called to be the God-bearer.  

The above is the second time his name is dropped.  And a third time in 2:16 (which we will hear later) where he is at the manger with Mary and Jesus.  And…that is really it.  He is there when Jesus is circumcised and when Jesus stays behind at the temple at age 12.  Some translations name him specifically and others just have a generic, “Jesus’ parents”.  But that is it.  In Luke’s gospel, Joseph is silent, but he does get a participation trophy.  

Wait.  What about the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream?  That is found in Matthew 1:18-25.  While that is certainly a great story, it is Matthew’s narrative and not Luke’s good news.  For Luke, Joseph is important because of what where he is from and who he is related to.

We have all had those moments where we don’t feel like we are being fully seen or heard.  I get referred to as “Ethan or Olivia’s dad” or “Just a pastor” or “From that church that so-so goes to.”  Moments when we feel pushed to the periphery and don’t even get the participation trophy!!

What stories from your own experiences start to stir and swirl in response to the above?

This is where it is good to remember that while I am the star of the drama/comedy/musical known as “My life”; I get an honorable mention in other people’s stories.  While I am on center stage in my own head, from the eyes and understandings of others I am barely on stage and certainly not in the spotlight.  

I celebrate Joseph as part of God’s divine story, and I know that I am called to participate too.  And it is good to remember where my hands and presence might be called to be part may or may not be the starring role.  But I would rather be in concert and caught up with what God is doing than only counting how many times my name gets dropped.  Such a way of seeing the world, as we heard in the quote on Monday, will cause us to let go of the ways we usually operate to be about God’s work in the world.  

Prayer: God open me to do what I can, where I can, regardless of whether anyone ever gives me an award.  Amen.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Advent Week Two: Peace

 


I invite you to light two candles: one for hope and one for peace as you read today’s meditation.  You are invited to read Luke 2:1-20 aloud...then settle into the first two verses:

 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria.

Luke starts off by naming the powerful and prestigious people who lived in posh palaces.  Luke begins by naming the context when the sacred started stirring in a new way.  To locate God’s grand entry in the time of Augustus and Quirinius reminds us that God’s story and our story are not different or distance.  God’s story gets woven into human history.  God’s story is still being stitched into this world right here and now.

Sometimes people like to debate or discuss if the census really happened?  They want historical evidence or to prove that this is true.  What I find more fascinating is the truth beneath whether something occurred.  Whether a census happened only takes me so deep into the story.  To dare to dive deeper would be to acknowledge and affirm that Emperor Augustus and Quirinius had all the clout and cash to do whatever they choose.  To quote my grandfather’s favorite phrase, “If Augustus said jump…you didn’t even dare ask how high!  You just started hopping with all your might and hoped it was enough.”  People were afraid of the powers-that-be.  The anxiety that hovered/hung in the air was contagious.  People tried to keep their heads down and just went about their life. 

You can stop me anytime this sounds familiar!

We still have powers-that-be that flex their might and muscle.  We still have people who use that power to hurt and harm others; examples of how people today are treated as less-than made in God’s holy image.  We still have people in positions of prestige and privilege who may not go by the name “Caesar,” but act like it every day. 

The deep truths of this story are a song as old as time and rhyme!

If you want to switch to advance-player mode, the truth is that I can be like Emperor Augustus too.  I can demand over the phone to a customer service representative that the “Customer is always right!”  I can decide not to look in the eyes of the front-line worker at the grocery store and stare at my phone instead.  I can throw around my privilege, such as it is, in ways I don’t see because of my own bias.  I can let the access I have to the basic needs as well as money shield me from others demands.

Me?  Like Caesar?  Say it ain’t so!  I don’t like how uncomfortable that makes me feel.

Perhaps one of Luke’s points isn’t only that God entered human history in those days, but also in these days.  Perhaps one of Luke’s points isn’t only that God’s ways are different than our ways, but will challenge and call us to let go over the things that keep us separated from each other.  Perhaps one of Luke’s points is to bring this sacred story next to our own heart, trusting that God’s grace will guide us in ways that can move us to live differently in these days.

May that paragraph above be my prayer this day, O God.  Come and show me the Caesar within to let go and make more room for You.  Amen. 


Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Advent Week Two: Peace

 


I invite you to light two candles: one for hope and one for peace as you read today’s meditation.


When was the last time you read the Christmas story as recorded by Luke in chapter 2? Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that question in the comment section!

Many of us just hear these words on Christmas Eve when the sanctuary hums with the holy.


This year, seeing as our homes are our sanctuary, I think it is good to start to weave these familiar words into the walls around us. In the sermon on Sunday, November 29 (click here to watch), I encourage you to create an altar in your home. I suggested you could put an Advent wreath there with five candles (four for the Sundays leading up to Christmas – the candles of hope, peace, love, and joy – and a fifth candle in the middle to light on Christmas Eve/Christmas day). Or you could put priceless family treasures that have your grand-parents DNA and fingerprints upon them. Or you could place your nativity scene figures.


Now, I want you to place and put your Bible there open to Luke chapter 2.

Next, I want you to slowly savor the sacred story that is the reason for the season by reading the words aloud at your altar/holy of holies.

Notice where you place the emphasis or inflection.

Notice your emotions that are evoked and provoked by the words.

Notice what questions come up or new words that you hadn’t heard in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve.

Every sentence of Luke 2:1-20 has a sermon waiting within it. Between now and Christmas Eve I am going to slowly savor the story and offer a brief meditation on each verses.

I invite you each day to read the whole story aloud; then settle in with me into the individual verses in the days to come. I pray this practice will awaken us to the marvel, mystery, holy humility that hums in every word as well as the spaces in-between.

For now, find your Bible and let us begin to let the words of Luke guide us to the place where Love’s pure light is born anew and afresh even this year.

Prayer: In these days, O God, let Your decree dance in my heart as I center the familiar words I have heard so many times, but need to hear afresh/anew this year. Amen.


Monday, December 7, 2020

Advent Week Two: Peace



So Advent helps us practice, year after year (will we ever get it right?), letting go of our certainties. Advent waiting entails letting go of our political posturing, our fundamentalisms and finger pointing, our hashtags and hubris. Rather, it teaches us to watch quietly, wait expectantly and prepare to seek the Christ child in humble places like a stable. Gretchen E. Ziegenhals

I invite you to light two candles: one for hope and one for peace as you read today’s meditation.

We enter the second week of Advent with the candles of hope and peace lighting the way.  These two candles guide us and ground us.  They both tell us the direction to go and teach us the way to be.  As Fred Craddock said, “Hope needs one calorie a day to survive.”  As Maya Angelou poetically penned about peace, “We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence. It is what we have hungered for. Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace. A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies. Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.”

The candles of Advent lead us to the most impossible and improbable place – a dusty, dirty, drafty barn!  God’s grand entry and social media strategy is as counter-cultural and counter-cultural gets!  God decides that an unwed young woman, named Mary, should be the God-bearer.  Rather than power, privilege, and prestige, God goes a different way.  I agree with Ziegenhals’ quote above, of course we don’t get this right, because we need to let go of so much of what we cling to as certainty in our life.  To let go of our plans for what God is up to in the world today.  At its core what we hear in the Gospels at Christmas calls us let go of being in control and in charge. 

But wait just a minute, you may think, does that mean I don’t stand for anything?  Or what about people who are on the fringe and fray?  Great questions!  Advent calls me to seek to stand with God’s way of hope, peace, love and joy.  These are not exactly the sorts of words we have been hearing much in 2020!!  Advent challenges me to listen and lean into those who feel on the fringe and fray – not assume I can solve all their problems or that I am super spiritual man to their rescue.  I, like the shepherds, stand in awe of what Ross Gay calls, “Structural Tenderness” and what God is up to in the world.

Advents calls each of us to:

1    Watch.

2.      Wait.

3.      Prepare with humility.

I need the candles of hope and peace to burn brightly before and within me to do those three tasks!  It is my prayer this week, we might let the challenging words of this season sink and sing to our souls in such a way that we realize, though we many never get Advent right…but that getting Advent right isn’t the point.  The invitation is to witness to the mystery and marvel of God’s presence with us and for us. 

Prayer: O come, o come Emmanuel and enter my heart, home, and whole life this day and this week.  May You find room and a welcoming, warm embrace.  Amen. 


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