Advent 3: Ladies’ Night

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior… (Luke 1:46-47)

Well, it’s Saturday night, and it’s ladies’ night! Sort of. I’m sitting here letting the kitchen floor dry, and I realized that I haven’t written anything about the Magnificat (the song of Mary), which was the Gospel reading on Sunday. And I’m laughing at how much life changes … A Saturday night with a new mop is big excitement around here.

Sometimes I’m shocked that so much real estate in Scripture is given to Mary, a humble, otherwise unremarkable woman. We don’t know much about her, except that she was a young unwed mother, and that later on was devoted to her son.

The grumpy side of me asks, why would a woman living two thousand years ago, in circumstances like hers, sing such a song of praise? She was taking a huge risk with the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and even bigger risks with pregnancy itself. Childbirth was scary in those days!

How did she gain such a sense of complete trust? I know many faithful people who would have trouble doing what Mary did.

I wonder if the main energy behind her faith came from the promise made to her as a woman. In those days a woman was nothing without a son. God gave her the gift of being legitimate and recognized. Those are gifts you can’t understand until you have been without them. Indeed, God looked upon her with favor.

May God grant his favor to all who are place-less, faceless, or nameless.

Advent 3: Isaiah 61

Isaiah 61:1-2a

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;       

  he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

         to proclaim liberty to the captives,

            and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …

My uncle is a prison chaplain, ministering to inmates and staff in a high-security facility.  Many of the inmates where he works suffer from severe mental illness.  I wonder if anyone ever reads this text there — I’ve been meaning to ask him.

He tells me that although the idea of having a religion is pretty popular within the prison walls, Christianity is about the least popular choice.  Why?  Because many of the inmates see the weakness of the cross and reject it.  They would rather express their spiritual side in a way that celebrates power.

It’s a complicated place, the prison.   Some inmates do profess faith in Christ, often at a heavy cost within the closed society of inmates.  As I mentioned, many would prefer a more macho savior.  Yet they still hold Christmas parties, hosted by churches that are willing to come in and provide the refreshments.  I have met some of the inmates, and they are complicated people.

I wonder what it would mean for them to experience release, liberty, and good news.   How does the year of the Lord’s favor impact someone who is hardened against it?

For that matter, how do God’s promises impact us?  Do we like what we hear when God speaks?

Advent 3: Give thanks in all circumstances

This selection was not read at our church on Sunday, but it was one of the lectionary (“suggested”) readings in our church calendar.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

should we be grateful for this pile of mail?

There is a joke going around online about “First World Problems.” A first world problem is a difficulty only experienced by middle- or upper-class people, such as, “Starbucks ran out of cinnamon dolce lattes so I had to have vanilla instead.” Some of the jokes people submit are crude, but others demonstrate razor-sharp humor.

It never fails to amaze me that during a mission trip, the first-world participants will invariably talk about gratitude. Some give thanks for the comforts they enjoy at home and are currently doing without… and others go to a deeper level, noticing the ways that the people we are visiting give thanks. Sometimes,we even have the awkward experience of the mission trip participants feeling like the people we were helping weren’t thankful enough.

Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for an experience I had in Guatemala five years ago. We visited a village devastated by a hurricane, and the pastor was not very happy to see us. He was not receiving adequate compensation for his services and travel, and he demanded to know how much I and the other trip leaders were paid in our calls back home. (Pardon me if I’ve told this story before.) The village church presented us with a request for money and we truly had a “first-world problem moment.” Everyone felt wounded, because we had taken our spring break to go all the way to this little village and they didn’t appreciate us.

Later that night, we snapped back into reality (and we owned up to our pouting.) The students realized that even though they were tied down by school and student loans, they knew people who weren’t. We all knew someone who could help. So, to make a long story short, we shared the plight of the village when we got back home, and now they have a great relationship with some good Christian folks who provide all kinds of help. When our college group returned two years later, the village was physically and spiritually renewed. Gratitude was everywhere.

I like how Paul juxtaposes the direction to “pray without ceasing” along with encouragement to rejoice and give thanks. Sometimes it really does look like there is no reason to express thanks … but given some patience and prayer, God can help us turn things around.

I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt as they prepared for the birth of their son. Certainly they were in an awkward and vulnerable place. It would be years before Jesus’ public ministry began, and even then, he would not be universally appreciated. Yet the weary parents carried on, plodding along toward Bethlehem. I wonder if they gave thanks, and for what.

May the Spirit of Christ give us patience for the journey … patience enough to wait for when the gratitude shines through.

Advent Week 3: like those who dream

Psalm 126  (NRSV)

A Song of Ascents.  
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
   we were like those who dream. 
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
   and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ 
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced. 

4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
   like the watercourses in the Negeb. 
5 May those who sow in tears
   reap with shouts of joy. 
6 Those who go out weeping,
   bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
   carrying their sheaves.

As I listened to the liturgist read Psalm 126 on Sunday morning, my mind filled with questions.  Who are “those who dream?”  Doesn’t everyone dream?  Why is it that dreams are associated with laughter and joy in this song — after all, aren’t some dreams disturbing?

Is there something about being able to dream, or being able to enjoy your dreams, that the Psalmist wanted to get across?

Many of us don’t get the chance to enjoy our dreams.  If you hit the ground running from the time you wake up, and collapse into bed at the end of the evening, chances are that your dreams (even if they are pleasant) stay forever buried in some deep crevice of the mind:  you simply don’t have time to recall them.

Often, when we do remember a dream, it is a distressing one.  For some reason the dreams that reflect our inner anxiety and suffering are more likely to weigh on us during the waking hours.  Maybe you’d rather forget those dreams.

So, I wonder if what we have in Psalm 126 is a reflection on being human.  When one is in right relationship with God, then everyday activities eating and drinking and dreaming are expressions of joy.  When one is estranged from God, everyday activities only seem to magnify the distance.  “Those who dream” are those who can enjoy God’s gifts on a daily and nightly basis.

This Advent season, we might ask Christ, who is fully human and fully divine, to help us be fully human.  To faithfully enjoy our minds, souls, and bodies — this wonderful combination of gifts given only to us human beings — would indeed be a dream.

Advent Week 3: Welcome Mat

He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. (John 1:8)

A member of our church shared a story with me that I’ll never forget. She said that as Advent began this year, she and her family were feeling a little blah about the upcoming season. Same old, same old, and no “Christmas spirit,” she said. But, according to her, when she saw my daughter staring wide-mouthed at the Chrismon tree in the sanctuary, the spirit came back like a rushing wind. (Naturally, I teared up as she told me this!)

From the sanctuary Chrismon tree (Chrismon = a tree decorated with symbols of Christ)

The uninspired, uninterested feeling she described is nothing new. It has happened to many of us. Seasons come and go, with their accompanying church and family activities, and after a while the feeling just isn’t the same. We need something to give us new purpose and meaning.

I had my own moment of renewal and re-commitment this Advent as well. And mine was … evangelism.

Yes, evangelism! That word that befuddles and terrifies believers has become the “Christmas spirit” word for me.

Let me give you a little background on how I got so inspired. Most days, I’m actually a very poor evangelist, for a few reasons. None of these are legitimate, but they are real.

  • I want to be a friendly pastor and not a pushy one.
  • I don’t get out much beyond the church walls, church activities, and my college group.
  • And sometimes I just forget. Sometimes church is just a job for me, and that’s a terrible way to be a pastor. I think my colleagues and I fall into that rut from time to time, which is sad.

But evangelism is central to being a follower of Jesus! Part of our call as Christians is to get beyond ourselves, and lay out the welcome mat for someone else– to testify to the light, if you will. We are strengthened in faith as we tell others the Good News.

The call nudged at me after I read my seminary classmate Jeff McDonald’s article on why churches should work hard on bringing those holiday visitors into the fold. His argument made perfect sense to me: if people are already showing up, why not give them what they are looking for plus more? I shook my head and smiled as I read. We are so busy during Advent that we fail to see the real “reason for the season”: the face of Christ, showing up as a guest in our houses of worship.

So I invited some people to come to church! And they responded well! It almost bowled me over.

Jesus has laid out the welcome mat for you and me all over again. How will we respond?

Advent 2: you people shape up!

During last Sunday’s sermon I mentioned that Christians have a really bad reputation for being judgmental. Others simply don’t view us and our lovely church buildings as welcoming. It seems that we are good at telling others to shape up when we are in pretty bad shape ourselves.

In some ways the Advent/Christmas season is a reprieve from our reputation. This time of year is homey and cozy and pretty — like a big bowl of macaroni and cheese to share with the world. (Sure, mac & cheese can be pretty!)

So I took a personal challenge from the Epistle reading for 12/4, even though I didn’t use it in the sermon. In this passage, Peter encourages the people to remain faithful, “leading lives of holiness and godliness”. (2 Peter 3:11)

What I read here was a challenge to worry less about others, and to focus more on how I could allow Christ to work in me. No one needs a break from spending time with an authentic, faithful, and humble person. That “at home” feeling is real at any time of year when one is at home in the Spirit.

May all feel welcome in God’s house and among God’s people, both in Advent and beyond.

Advent 2: Righteousness and Peace Will Kiss Each Other

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other. (Psalm 85:10)

Just a few thoughts on the second half of this verse:

I can see how steadfast love and faithfulness would complement one another. But how do righteousness and peace relate?

We have all seen examples of righteousness without peace. People obsessed with righteousness, who have no commitment to peace, can become poisoned with hatred. I think Jesus exposed that empty, pseudo-righteousness in his ministry.

Also, peace without some kind of standards or moral truth is a false peace. (Later on I’ll link to a great article about this.)

I suppose righteousness and peace can tug at one another too: it may be hard to keep the peace when you need to call someone out for a less-than-righteous action.

So I guess we have to keep making sure those two are on kissing terms. Not divorced from one another, but able to meet in the middle so that God’s steadfast love will shine through.

Advent 2: In the News

A few days ago the “45 Most Powerful Images of 2011” were released on a site called Buzzfeed.  Take a look at these gripping reminders of what the world has been through in the past year.

When I was in seminary, the other students and I got excited when we read the headlines.  We got excited because we all wanted to be “prophetic,” meaning that each of our activities — from internships to sermons — would be designed to challenge the ruling powers of the day.  Our seminary joke was, “I feel like Jeremiah”:  we nerdy and well-fed kids were a little too quick to compare ourselves to giants of the faith.  Thankfully, we were able to laugh at our self-importance.  I discovered when I took my first call that prophecy is hard work, and half the time, I don’t even know what the prophetic response to a situation would be.

Yet when you look at images such as those on Buzzfeed, how can you not yearn for a prophet?  Someone needs to come along and tell us what all the violence and suffering means.  Someone needs to come along to show us another way.

Perhaps the church’s call for the 21st century is to bring out those prophets.  If we paid more attention to Isaiah and Jeremiah and Hosea, perhaps some ordinary church member would hear the call coming through those ancient words.  I live for the day when someone tells me that they spoke up against some injustice or another, because of what they learned at church.

We’ve all seen what’s in the news.  What is God calling us to do about it?

Advent 2: Gifts

This evening our church hosted a Mission Fair for the weekly children’s program.  Church members made displays describing what $1 or $5 could buy for a charitable agency, and children “shopped” the charities and made their donations.

One boy was shocked when he visited the medical mission display.  His mother said, “Look, two dollars buys a vaccine for a little boy or girl so they will stay healthy.  A vaccine is a shot.”  The boy’s mouth dropped, as if to say, people pay for shots?

Sometimes the best gifts are not exactly what we had hoped for, and sometimes the best gifts cost little if any money.  What a gift, to be free from a disease that could prematurely end your life.  However, in the eyes of a child, the syringe doesn’t look much like a gift!

What good gifts have you received?  What good gifts may you be missing now because you have trouble believing they are true?

Advent 2: Space for Grace

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

When reading the Bible, we have to be careful to avoid reading what isn’t there.

This past Sunday, it would have been very easy for me or any other preacher to put words in the mouth of John the Baptist.  In accounts we find in other Gospels, he takes on the crowds, but in Mark’s version, his message is simple:   get ready, for a powerful One is on the way.

If we read Mark and stick to just what we find in the text, we find a presentation of John as an unusual but not necessarily off-putting guy.  Apparently, people felt comfortable enough to go out to the wilderness, hear him, and receive his baptism.  We find a man who carved out a spiritual space, so that people could make their own personal space for the Messiah.

Could you have space for grace out here?

Creating space.  A lot of what we do in church is just that.  We put all the right elements together so that people will have space, freedom, or even permission to experience new life in Christ.  We make space for grace.

I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but I was amazed a few years ago when our campus ministry Bible study group created a “space for grace” for a student who came in looking very upset.  We set aside the evening’s topic to focus on helping her.  We talked about the hurt she was carrying, and almost in unison, we said it’s OK to let it go.  I think we all left feeling that the Spirit had occupied our hearts.

I think John the Baptist was on to something in his ministry.  People really do want to confess and repent.  They may not use those terms to describe what’s going on in their hearts, but they crave a space to let things go and receive forgiveness.  They seek a space for grace.

How can we provide that space for someone else, and witness to God’s grace once the space is made?