Being Bethlehem…

Last night I sat in sacred space in Independence, Missouri (USA) and through the miracle of technology shared in an Advent worship with friends in

  • Oregon, USA
  • Australia
  • Zambia
  • Honduras
  • Germany
  • Philippines
  • French Polynesia
  • Canada
  • Dominican Republic

I heard prayers, music, and scripture read and sung in

  • English
  • Bembe
  • French
  • Spanish
  • German

And I was challenged with the questions of “How far is it to Bethlehem for me this Advent season?” and “How will I–and the place(s) I worship–be Bethlehem, the birthplace of Messiah, this Advent season?”

“Bethlehem” translates as “place of bread” or “place of meat”…a place where one is fed and nourished. If I choose to be Bethlehem this Advent season, that calls me to be a place where individuals can be fed and nourished–not just physically (although that is important), but also to feed their souls and spirits.

To be Bethlehem calls me to recognize the worth of those who look different from me…who worship in ways that are not necessarily my way…to see them as brothers and sisters.

It is not always easy. In fact, most of the time it is difficult. But if–as in last night–I can share in worship with others in different cultures through the miracle of technology, then I can also use that miracle to learn more about them…to find the ways in which we are alike…and to work with them to create a world that can be Bethlehem–a place of bread or meat–for all people.

Peace on earth…?

As Christians celebrate Advent–the time of preparation for Christmas–I am reminded of the song that the angels sang to the shepherds…”Peace on earth…”

Whose peace?

What do I mean by that?

Peace has a number of different definitions: (1) the absence of war, (2) calmness, (3) tranquility, (4) a state of security provided by law, (5) a treaty to end hostilities… It’s often a passive word–it happens to us; we don’t do much to cause it.

But I don’t think that’s the kind of peace the angels meant.

I think they were talking about shalom, which is much more than the definitions above. It’s broader…and active. It encompasses wholeness…soundness…right relationships…an overflowing sense of tranquility and health that causes one to pass it on or to repay.

It’s God’s peace–and that is so very different from our limited understanding!

We cannot bring about that kind of peace on our own. Yes, we can do our part to help bring about the cessation of conflict, but for the world to experience the kind of peace the angels sang about, we have to be willing to surrender. Surrender our own demands for “right,”…our thirst for “more and more”…our conviction that we know exactly what the Divine wants for everyone…

We have to be willing to listen…to look with new eyes…to travel new roads where we may not see more than a step or two ahead…to walk with new companions we might not be completely comfortable with.

Only then will the song be complete…”Peace on earth…shalom…”

angelappearingtoshepherds

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.

See the source image

Advent…

Tomorrow is the first day of Advent 2016.

When I was growing up, we didn’t do much with the liturgical calendar in my faith tradition. It was too much “other”… We celebrated Christmas and Easter–but that was about the extent of my knowledge of this ancient Christian tradition.

But I’ve grown to appreciate it as I’ve grown older–and as my faith tradition has incorporated more of it into our understanding.

And so tomorrow…the first Sunday of Advent–incorporating the idea of hope. That seems an appropriate emphasis, especially in this time when so many are wondering what there is to have hope about.

Advent is a time of preparation…a time when–in the broader context of my religious background–we look to the coming of the Christ. We celebrate his coming 2000 years ago…and we also look to his coming in our time.

That coming can take many forms…not just the physical coming of a specific individual. It can come as people live out their best understanding of the message of hope, peace, love, and acceptance that was taught 2000 years ago. In a world filled with so much hatred and division, there are still those times when I look around and see it happening…and those are my reasons for hope.

  • Over the Thanksgiving weekend, two strangers came together and became friends. It started with an accidental tweet from a grandmother to a young man she thought was her grandson (wrong address!) but when she discovered the error, she still invited him to join with her family–and he did. They took a chance with each other–and found new connections.
  • An 86-year-old man taught himself to knit in order to make tiny caps for preemies. At this point he’s made 50…and inspired friends to make another 300. (And he plans on continuing to knit.)
  • A mother wrote her ex’s new girlfriend a thank you note…thanking her for the care she has for their shared daughter.
  • A little boy called 911…his emergency was that they were having Thanksgiving dinner and he wanted the deputies to join them (which they did).

There are others–I’m sure you’ve seen them and could share. These were just the first that came to mind for me.

Yes, there are reasons for despair–plenty of them. And yet…if we fall into that trap, we lose the wonder of this time of preparation…and we perpetuate those feelings and attitudes.

I want to see with eyes of hope. Clear-eyed…not ignoring the challenges and problems…but looking for ways to transform them…to prepare myself for living so that when others look at me, they can see the presence of the Christ in my choices and words…so that I can be a true representative of the One I try to follow.

 

Advent musings…

I started to write this post a few days ago but got sidetracked with other things that needed to get done. Since then there have been a number of situations that have changed what I was thinking…

So here are some Advent musings–not in any particular order.

At this time when we are looking back in time to the birth of a baby in a stable in Bethlehem…and forward to a time when we will have learned how to accept each other and to live in a way that honors the birth of that child…I am grateful. Grateful for a safe place…for shelter and food…for family and friends. But along with that gratefulness, I find myself being challenged–challenged to live in a way that provides those same opportunities for others. It’s easy for me to “cocoon” myself–to not look too far outside my own connections…and to not see the great need.

I am grateful for the continuing survival of a young loved one who has had many issues to deal with in a short life. Some of those issues are not because of anything that child has done–but because of decisions others have made. Some of them are because of that one’s own unwise decisions…and have impacted future choices the child has. There have been times when I have wondered if that young person is going to make it to adulthood without landing in jail–or dying…and I have agonized over what the future holds. And yet I am aware that this young one–and others in my family–are supported not only by family of birth but also by a church family who cares deeply for many young people who are struggling with so many difficult decisions. In this time of Advent, I am reminded of the importance of community in helping all children become who they can be.

I’ve been enjoying watching an active 2-year-old play with her nativity creche. Her favorite figures have been the shepherd who is holding what she calls “momma sheep”…and the single “baby sheep.” They have wandered all over the house, and I am never sure where I am going to find them! The three kings have also traveled…and the angel has sometimes been with them, sometimes with the shepherd, and sometimes with the family. It’s been important to her that Mommy and Daddy and the baby are together–and that there are hugs and kisses between them. At times they have been scattered–and yet somehow they all find a way to get back together.

I have watched healing occur in part of my family that was deeply wounded by an unexpected death 11 years ago…a death that has, in many ways, made it difficult to rejoice in the Advent and Christmas seasons. While we lost one grandchild far too early then, we have been able to rejoice in the birth of a new little one on that same birthday…new life rising out of the ashes of sorrow and regret.

I went to an Advent concert the other night. It was a quiet and reflective concert–different from much of the music we hear this time of year, and yet such a beautiful reflection on all the aspects of this season. The words at first blush don’t seem to fit this season of Advent…and yet they are so appropriate during this time of waiting–waiting for healing…for wholeness…for getting together…

The words were found written on the wall of a concentration camp…a place where hope may have seemed useless. And yet…someone had hope for a better world–just as we are called to…and to work toward.

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even though I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.