Into the desert

Somehow it seems appropriate that during this season of Lent I feel at times like I am in the desert.

Last Sunday’s lectionary scripture was about Jesus going into the desert after his baptism for a time of preparation that included testing. His response to those tests helped him know whether he was ready to begin his ministry.

I’m not really sure why I feel like I’m in the desert. I don’t think I’m facing any specific tests…although perhaps I am. Just not the specific kinds of tests that Jesus faced.

Part of what I’m facing is the need to let go of the desire to “fix” people…to make them conform to my expectations. That’s not really a bad thing, if those expectations include decisions that would lead to healthy living…but I have to allow them to make their own decisions if they are going to become who they have the potential of becoming. I may cringe at some of those decisions (and I do), but it’s not my responsibility to “fix” them. I can guide and offer suggestions, but ultimately I have to let them go.

Another part of what I’m facing is my frustration with the gap I see at times between what people say they believe and what words and actions show. I’m guilty of this as well, I know–and so I need to offer grace. I think, though, the challenge I face is between giving grace–and calling out the gap when it is harmful to others.

And I know that there are still some tender places that need to continue to heal from past experiences. Being in the desert forces me to face them…forces me to consider my own role in those experiences. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s important for me to acknowledge that fault in those situations is not one-sided.

I’ve been in the desert before, and I’ll probably be there again. So I know that I will emerge from this experience stronger than I was before…more prepared for ministry opportunities that may be coming my way.

But it still doesn’t mean that going into the desert is fun.

It’s not. But it’s an essential part of the spiritual journey.

woman wearing purple hooded jacket sitting on rock

Photo by Pete Johnson on Pexels.com

What…and where…is church?

I’m probably like a lot of you. I grew up at a time when talking about going to church meant going to a specific building on Sunday morning for Sunday school and a preaching service…possibly returning on Sunday night for another preaching service…and also maybe on Wednesday night for a prayer and testimony service. Then there were also special weeklong preaching series…church camps…youth camps…etc., etc., etc.

That was what…and where…church was.

But as I’ve gotten older–and as our society has become less overtly religious–I’ve had to face some questions. Is that the only way to experience God? Are there other ways to “do” church? What does “church” really mean? And I’m sure you can add your own questions to the list.

While I still appreciate Sunday morning preaching services, I’ve also become aware that Sunday mornings are difficult for many people. Families with young children…those who work all week and for whom Sunday is the one day they can sleep in…families with children involved in sports activities…

Yes, we can say that it shouldn’t be that way–but it is. And if we ignore that reality, we risk losing any opportunity of ministering to a large group of people.

So what if we put aside our own personal biases for a moment and think outside the box? Where…when…how can we do church?

What about sitting together around a meal? After all, that’s where Jesus did a lot of ministry…

What about playing games together? Sometimes that casualness allows people to be more open in their sharing…

What about just visiting? or going to an event together? or cleaning up a street or neighborhood? or…or…or…?

There are so many ways and places “church” is…if we’re willing to be open to them. What are some ideas you have?

 

Merry Christmas

joseph-mary-and-jesus

And so the day is here…the day that we’ve been looking forward to.

But it’s not the end; it’s the beginning. It’s a reminder that the journey is not finished…that we still have a long way to go before we are living in the peace that the angels came to proclaim.

On this day we celebrate one child born so long ago–a child who had no bed to lay in, born to parents who would find themselves fleeing to another land to escape violence.

As he grew, he challenged the status quo. He loved the unlovable…taught that all were of worth…brought healing and wholeness.

We might not be able to do all the things he did–but we can do a lot. We can look back in celebration to the birth…and forward to a time when we can celebrate a world living as he wanted us to:

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

And so…as we celebrate the birth of this Jesus, let us live Christmas all year.

Joy

Advent 4

On this last Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of joy.

What is joy?

Perhaps we should start out by saying what it is not. Joy is not necessarily happiness. Happiness can be fleeting, dependent on events happening in our lives–or the lives of our loved ones. If circumstances change, happiness may disappear.

But joy…joy is an emotion that comes from deep in our heart. We can find joy even in the most difficult of life circumstances…even when common sense says we should be completely down in the dumps.

So what makes the difference?

Joy may include happiness, but it goes deeper. We have joy when we know we have a firm foundation we can build our lives on–someone we can trust to always be with us through both good and bad times…someone who loves us, no matter what.

Joy acknowledges that life is not always easy, but it also knows that we are never alone, even when it may feel like we’ve been abandoned. Our human family, our friends may turn away from us–but the One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate never does.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories (and movies) this time of year–Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Cratchit family lacks much of the “things” that we tend to think are necessary to find happiness, and also are dealing with the illness of the youngest child–and yet when they are preparing for their Christmas dinner, Bob Cratchit (the patriarch of the family) is still able to offer a toast of thanks and gratefulness for what they have…the love of family. They have joy.

And so…as we light this candle of joy, my wish, my blessing for each of you is this quote from Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one!” And may you be blessed with true joy, not just this day but throughout the year.

 

Hope

 

Yesterday there were two candles to light…the first candle of Hanukkah and the first Advent candle, the candle of hope.

In some ways these two might not seem to have anything in common. And we might wonder what they have to do with hope.

The typical definition of hope is kind of shallow. We might say “I hope it doesn’t rain” or “I hope I can see that movie”…or “I hope…[something else].” That’s short-term or wishful thinking and doesn’t require much of anything from us.

But there are some other ways of defining hope that are more meaningful in this season of advent.

Hope can be seen as an optimistic state of mind based on expecting positive outcomes regardless of what is going on in the world around. It can mean to expect with confidence or to cherish an idea with anticipation.

In the Christian tradition, it can be seen as faith directed toward the future. It is “the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).

Hanukkah reminds us of hope in a God who knows our needs and provides what is needed–in this case, eight days of oil which allowed the Jews to rededicate the Temple that had been desecrated under the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. There was only one day’s worth of oil available to light the candelabra and begin the process of rededication–but it burned for eight days.

Advent points Christians toward the celebration of the presence of God in the world through Jesus…a celebration of the time he came 2000 years ago but also a looking forward to his coming again.

Both of these things seem impossible–and yet they happened.

And because they happened, we can acknowledge hope as more than just wishing that something will turn out well. We celebrate hope as a faith that looks toward the future with confidence…that God is, and that God continues to care for all of God’s creation.

 

Advent musings

As we are preparing to go into the season of Advent…and beginning our preparations for Christmas…I got to thinking about what we know about Jesus.

He was born into an occupied country—a country wracked by violence where one never knew from one day to the next whether they would be alive or dead…and where safety for the occupied community was really a mirage.

Besides the occupiers, his country was also torn by violence between competing groups who had very different opinions on how to deal with the governing authorities. Some wanted to just get along. Others wanted the invaders out—and were willing to use every method they knew to get them gone…along with those who had collaborated with them.

There was a large gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Some were secure in knowing they had a place to live, clothes to wear, and enough food to eat. Many, many more weren’t sure where their next meal would be coming from.

At various times, people fled their country. Some were running from the violence that surrounded them. Others were hoping somehow to find a better life. Jesus’ own family fled the violence and became refugees in another country.

As an adult, back in his own country, Jesus continued to face challenges. Violence, corruption in government and religion, fear, hatred of the other…

And yet…he did otherwise. He ate with corrupt religious leaders. He healed family members of the oppressors. He visited with those who were “other.” He talked about love…and challenged his followers to truly follow his example of all-embracing love, hope, and healing.

So this year…while I love my traditional and beautiful nativity scenes, I also want to look at ones that make me uncomfortable…that remind me that the One I will be celebrating did not live an easy life–and calls me to make sometimes difficult choices. I want to be reminded that when I look into the faces of “the other,” I am called to see the face of Jesus.

Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of when Jesus came 2000 years ago…and a time of preparation for when Jesus will come again…and I want to be reminded again and again of what he said–that when I bring ministry (food, water, shelter, affirmation) to any of God’s children, I am doing it to and for him.

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Shouldn’t church just be … church?

“Why does political ‘stuff’ have to get talked about at church? I come to church to hear God’s word; I can get enough of the other stuff the rest of the week. Shouldn’t church just be…well…church?”

That depends.

My father, who was a full-time minister in my faith tradition, had a saying that the responsibility of the church was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

I’m not sure we’re really accomplishing either of those responsibilities very well today.

There are a lot of hurting people who would like to find a place where they are accepted, loved, and told they are people of worth. Unfortunately, far too often when they step into a church, they are told that they have to change…that their lifestyle keeps them from being loved…that God hates who/what they are…and they leave feeling worse than when they come.

And those who are comfortable far too often find themselves able to nod in agreement when they hear words that confirm that their comfortable lifestyle is proof that God loves them and what they are doing meets with God’s approval.

Too often church means we close the doors on the world as it is and the rest of the week, making a nice, safe shelter for us and those we like and agree with.

But those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus need to take a closer look at this one we follow.

He started out his public ministry by quoting an older prophet (Isaiah 4:18-19 CEB):

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

When his followers asked him to teach them to pray, he included this as part of his prayer (Matthew 6:10 Good News Translation):

may your Kingdom come;
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Both of those teachings sound to me like we have some major responsibility towards those we share this earth with.

And there’s an even clearer message. Many of us who claim to be followers of this Jesus may be surprised when we face him. Here’s what he said about that (Matthew 25:31-45 The Message):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”

So…should church just be…well…church? If that means that it calls us to care for our brothers and sisters, whether they are in our social circles or not…whether they are the same religion…whether they are the same color…sexual orientation…gender…race… whether we agree with their politics or not, then I’m for that kind of church!