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.

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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!

This is my song…

I’ve had a lot to think about this last week. I attended the national convention of the American Guild of Organists in Kansas City. It was a wonderful week of music, classes, fellowship, and worship…some very powerful worship!

Since this is the 100th year since the end of World War I, many of the events of last week were connected and intertwined with that event. They were vivid reminders of the desire–and need–for peace in our world…and the difficulties we have in being peaceful.

Yes, the “great war” was 100 years ago, but so many of the feelings and events that led up to it sounded so contemporary…unfortunately. I was reminded of a line from the song that was popular during the Vietnam War–“When will we ever learn?”

Music in its many forms can challenge us. It can give us hope. It can call us to be better people…and help us focus on the better future that we all want. It can remind us that we are all children of one God–whatever name we call the Divine.

May we somehow learn to sing together these words so often set to the tune Finlandia:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

May truth and freedom come to every nation,
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
That each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting ev’ry wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

Church? When?

I grew up at a time when life was–in many ways–less hectic. And there were some times that were sacrosanct…kept free. Wednesday nights and Sundays were reserved…for church.

And the blue laws were still in effect. For those too young to remember, that meant that stores weren’t open on Sundays either. If you’d forgotten to buy something on Saturday that you were going to need on Sunday, that was too bad. You’d have to improvise!

But time moved on…and religion began to take a less important place in our lives–at least, in some ways. And sports began to take a bigger part. There were more and more opportunities for kids…and because more kids wanted to take part, the times when sports were scheduled began to expand…and moved into those previously sacred times.

So here we are now. Often there are rehearsals on Wednesday nights…and games on Sundays.

And yet, we seem to do church the same way we did all those years ago. And it’s not working…not well.

So…what do we do?

Yes, there are many people for whom Sunday morning church still works. I’m not advocating doing away with it, because I know that time and experience are still important parts of their schedules.

But there are many, many others for whom “traditional” church and traditional church time don’t work. Maybe because of jobs…maybe because of school activities…maybe because of sports or dance or other activities that their kids are involved in.

So can we look at some new possibilities?

  • Does church have to be on Sunday morning?
  • Does it have to be formal?
  • What if we set up some meetings in homes (house churches)?
  • What if we didn’t actually have a sermon?
  • What if we did a “chat and chow” activity?
  • What if we met at a bookstore? a Starbucks?
  • What if we met in the evening?
  • Could we create online communities of worshipers?

I’m sure there are other possibilities…I am still tied enough to traditional understandings of church that I find it a bit difficult to think outside the box. But I think it’s important to, because there are a lot of folks who are searching but not finding a spiritual home in our Sunday morning services.

I still love those services–they meet many of my needs. But I’m also excited about the possibilities that are out there…and trying to listen for where the Holy Spirit is calling us (me…) to go.