Posts Tagged ‘Advent’

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: Cry Out!

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.   (Isaiah 40:6)

Yesterday, the Old Testament reading was Isaiah 40:1-11.  My friend Christopher Edmonston (@pastoronpoint) got me thinking about this passage in an entirely new way this Advent season.  He began his online Advent reflections by asking a question:  what would happen if no one told the Advent and Christmas stories anymore?  What if we all decided that those stories are too old and worn out?   What would happen then?

His question led me to another:  what would happen if no one cried out, in the way that Isaiah is inspired to do?

What would we have lost if no one in the world had ever spoken up, dissented, protested, or revolted?

I used to think it would be easy to cry out about whatever I deemed wrong with the world.  If you don’t like something, start an argument or a protest about it, I reasoned.  What I didn’t realize was that I knew nothing about actual resistance; I was simply a determined argumentative kid.  (Just ask my mom and dad.)

As an adult, I have discovered that standing up for what you believe in is tough and complicated.  You think you’re signing a simple petition, but that one stroke of the pen commits you to arduous behind-the-scenes work.  You take a stand on something, and you lose some friends over it.  Or, you may be mad in general, but unable to articulate the changes you want to see in the world.

And so sometimes you just cry out.  Isaiah felt the call to cry, and yelled out, “What?  I’ll do it, but what will I say?  It’s almost no use.”

Years ago, as I prepared for ordination as a pastor, I thought and prayed about this passage.  At the time, being a seminary student or a pastor was a ridiculous thing to do, at least in my circle.  My senior year in college, some people even asked me why I would waste my time in seminary.  Yet I felt that God was doing something in my life and in the world that required me to talk about it.  So I used this passage at my ordination service.

Now, things are still not crystal clear, but I have felt encouraged and determined by the conversations about spirituality and personal ethics that have been swirling around in recent years.  I get the sense that we still don’t completely understand what we’re talking about, but all our words and cries are headed in the right direction.

As we prepare to receive Christ anew, may we cry out to the world about how much we need Him … even if we have trouble finding the words.

Advent 2: No Rush

Here’s a photo of the “official” Nativity scene in our sanctuary. You’ll notice that it’s incomplete, and we’re in no rush to finish it. We have until December 25!

So often we are in a hurry to get things done. So hurried, in fact, that other important things are sacrificed: quality, communication, wisdom, people.

This morning in the early worship service, I was given an unexpected gift as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper (communion). Elders were waiting to serve the musicians, who were playing a marvelous duet. If the elders had been in a hurry, they might have tapped their feet, rolled their eyes, or placed a hunk of bread on the piano for the musicians to eat later. But they waited, and we all had a moment of beauty and grace as we listened to the music.

So I’m in no rush to get to the manger. There’s a lot I want to see and hear and pray about along the way.

Advent Week 1: Santa Claus

The beginning of Advent brings up some questions of home décor.  (Seriously!)  Truthfully, most folks are in the habit of making their homes look festive with a mixture of Santas, Nativity scenes, reindeer, snowflakes, and the like.  Our Christmas tree has Santa ornaments along with whatever other ornaments we’ve accumulated over the years.

Yet most folks are also in the habit of griping about how Christ isn’t really in Christmas.  It’s tough to be a Christian in our consumer culture!

It may be theological nonsense, but my husband and I decided that we’d try to navigate our way through the mess by getting back to the roots of Santa Claus.  We decided that if Santa is loosely based on the original St. Nicholas, a man who saved a family through an anonymous donation, that we’d make Santa into “Jesus’ helper.”  For that matter, we’d make our whole family into Jesus’ helpers.  Anyone can give gifts to God’s children:  Santa, you, or me.  So we’ll see how that works out.

When our daughter gets older, I’ll tell her the story of her great-great-great-grandfather, who got the people in his western North Carolina church together to give a gift to needy children during the Advent or Christmas season.  His gifts were simple:  walnuts, oranges, apples, perhaps penny candy.  Yet to those kids who subsisted on beans and corn and old cabbage, the taste of an orange must have been magical.

My family continued the “treat bags” at the family Christmas gathering until recently, when my grandfather passed away.  I’d love to start this tradition again, but I’m not sure if today’s kids would be fascinated by an orange!  Perhaps there is a way to tweak it.

I’ll also take her to a Moravian love feast some Christmas Eve, if there is one nearby.  Some of my ancestors were part of this beautiful tradition, in which church members serve the congregation, members and visitors alike.  Each person in attendance receives a sweet roll infused with cinnamon and orange, a cup of hot spiced coffee, and a beeswax candle wrapped in red crepe paper.  I hope I can teach her about service as she watches faithful Christians serve her.

May the gifts we give point to Jesus’ love and grace, which he gives in abundance.

P.S.  More Advent blogs can be found here, affiliated with one of my favorite sites, The High Calling.

Advent 1: Where Did “Away In a Manger” Go?

Lo, he comes with clouds descending,
once for favored sinners slain;
thousand, thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign. 

Every eye shall now behold him,
robed in dreadful majesty;
those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
shall the true Messiah see. 

(Hymn written by Charles Wesley, often used during Advent)

Many people wonder why most churches don’t crank up the Christmas music as soon as the stores do.  The simple answer is that Advent is not Christmas.

Yet that answer isn’t really satisfying, because to be honest, we crave the comfort of Christmas carols.  Singing them gives many of us a warm feeling.  The feeling is even more nostalgic and cozy when we think about singing carols with family, in church, or going caroling in nursing homes as a teenager.

So if your church organist hammered out some intimidating Advent hymns on Sunday, you may have felt a little jarred.

Friends, if you’ll bear with me, maybe I can turn that unnerving experience into something meaningful.

  • First, reflect on how you felt on December 26 last year.   Were you a little sad when Christmas was over and all the great songs were packed away?  Did you think, wouldn’t it be wonderful to sing Christmas carols all year long?
  • If you wished for Christmas carols year-round, you actually hit a goldmine of faith.  The Christmas carols tell an essential part of the essential story!  They tell the story that God is with us, that the Messiah is born, that peace on earth is not far away.
  • Now reconsider Advent.   The Incarnation — the Christmas story — was just the beginning of God’s incredible work through Jesus Christ.  Advent reminds us that there is more.

So I hope we will all sing these odd Advent hymns, the hymns with words about John the Baptist and “clouds descending” and prophetic stuff, with zest.  If you believe it’s true, then sing about how God is at work, and how God has plans for a still “more excellent way!”

Advent 1 — Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19

David Leite, in his 2010 book The New Portuguese Table, writes of the endless ways the thrifty Portuguese use up leftovers and scraps of food.  With what’s around in the kitchen, they make comfort food:  soup, thick-cut potato chips, rice pilaf.  (My mom bought this book for us because my husband’s heritage is Portuguese.  Anything with chourico is amazing.)

You can do with the Psalms what the Portuguese do with food:   repackage, rephrase, and reinterpret ad infinitum. The images and combinations of words have endless possibilities.  For this reason, I have yet to find a better poet than the Psalmist.

Add some spices and make a remix!

You may not have heard the Psalm read in your worship service on Sunday, which is too bad.  Most of the time in today’s Presbyterian churches, we read one selection from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and perhaps give a nod to the Psalms in our hymns.

That’s a shame because the Psalms rock.

Think of all the ways Psalm 80 could be used this week by different Christians in their everyday lives.  These words could refresh and inspire whatever you’re doing, like a handful of fresh cilantro in some leftover rice.

∞ An artist could get so much material out of these images.  Let your face shine … you have fed them the bread of tears … stir up your might.

∞ A counselor could use this Psalm in working with troubled people.  The concept of God being “angry” with people’s prayers could really speak to someone who feels that nothing is working right.

∞ A healthcare professional could find some sustenance in the cry, “Restore us!”  I have friend in medical school who appreciates the divine moments that remind him why he’s there:  to serve those who are in great need.

∞ A family could quote verse 18:  “give us life, and we will call on your name.”

Why not use Psalm 80 sometime during your day, particularly as the fall turns to winter?  Here’s a prayer to get you started:

Shine on us, O Lord, as the days grow shorter and the night gathers around us.

Shine on us, O Lord, as we sit at our desks and work at our stations under artificial light.

Shine on us, O Lord, as we sit in dark rooms, rocking our babies back to sleep and holding the hands of our ancient ones.

Shine on us, O Lord, as we do the best we can with a pinch of this and a dash of that.

Shine on us, O Lord, as we wade through murky dilemmas, where no path seems clear.

Shine on us, O Lord, when we smile and share your radiant love.


Advent 1: Isaiah 64:1-9

We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)

If I were writing for seminary students, I would have started this blog a week ago.  In that environment, I’d be writing for people who were preparing to preach:  looking at the Scripture passages for the Sunday ahead.

But I hope that some non-seminarians, and non-preachers, are reading.  If you’re not preparing the sermon or the worship service, then you will think about it after the service is over.

After worship, snippets of hymns cruise through our ears, and bits and piece of prayer and sermon and Scripture rattle around in our minds.  Some Sundays we manage to grab a morsel of something rich and powerful that feeds us throughout the week.  Other Sundays the luster seems to vanish as soon as we leave the building, and we are left to face the week feeling unprepared… or even disappointed.

That’s where Isaiah begins his painful love song.  For him and the people, it’s over.  The relationship with God was a mixture of good and bad, but the worst part is that it feels like it’s in the past.   He’s left with a failed relationship, and nothing but tatters to hold onto.

Isaiah actually holds both God and people to account on this.  He writes, “because you (God) hid yourself we transgressed” (v. 5) and that no human “attempts to take hold of you” (v. 7).  In Isaiah’s mind, things fell apart because no one bothered to take care of the relationship.  People ought to be holding on to God for dear life, in Isaiah’s vision.  But they didn’t, and God got out of town.  Isaiah begs God to start paying attention and participating in the relationship again.

Really, this is a bold move on Isaiah’s part.  How dare he accuse God of not being caring, active, and loving?  Yet I think Isaiah has touched on something raw and hungry in the human soul.  We want — we need — vibrant, flourishing relationships.  Sometimes we don’t put the effort we should into our relationships, and sometimes we retaliate when we feel hurt by giving others the silent treatment.   Yet we can’t live without those relationships.  Isaiah, our lonely “ex”, remembers what it was like to hold on to God, and he wants God back.

So Isaiah closes with offering a deal of sorts.  Let’s try again.  Let’s go back to the unformed clay, and make something new.

Can we make something new at work or home or school this week?  Do we care enough to try?

Advent Week 1: “Tear Open the Heavens”

Last year, I set out on an ambitious project to post something about spiritual disciplines every day during Advent.  I did it, but whew!  What a task.  Those posts are still on this blog if you’d like to read them.

That project turned into an ongoing theme in our campus ministry program.  Several times a semester, if not several times a year, our group talks in a very direct way about spiritual growth and discipline.  Listening to young adults talk about prayer, meditation, and their spiritual experiences has truly changed my life.

This year my thoughts are still with young adults, but in a different way.   I’ve noticed over the years that here in Greenville, people in their late teens to early thirties actually show up for worship on Sunday mornings.  Crazy, I know!

However, we don’t talk much during the week about the worship experience was like.  It seems that we just go back to the same old routine every Monday morning:  our work, classes, clubs, and Thursday night campus ministry program.  So this year I will write during Advent about the Scriptures we read on Sunday mornings during church, the hymns we sing, the sermon, and anything else we do during worship.

I have no idea what seeds might be planted this Advent.  For me, if blogging about Sunday worship gets me to carry the Sunday message throughout the week, I’ll be more than satisfied.

All that being said, here’s Week 1.  You’ll see some thoughts from today’s worship service, and some further reflections throughout the week.

“Tear Open the Heavens”

I could have sat for an hour this morning and meditated on Isaiah 64:1 (“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence …”)

Don’t we wish that God would just get down here and fix some stuff?  That God would slay evil, abolish suffering, and … well, take away our pain with a sweep of his mighty hand?

In this morning’s sermon, Bill stated the case:  we miss God.  We have come to know and love our Creator, and it hurts to be separated from God.

Yet we also know that God has plans and promises.  That’s why we miss God so much when the promises don’t appear to be working out.

During the worship service on the first Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian, we try to witness to those plans and promises in a tangible way.  The service combines the stark prophetic texts with the joyful “Greening of the Church “, which is a procession through the sanctuary with the elements of the season, such as light, greenery, and banners.  It feels sort of like a pilgrimage, in which we “travel” to our place of worship, singing along the way about who God is and who we are because of Him.  Too bad we don’t parade around the city as well!

I always get the sense from this service that God has truly arrived.  God is in residence, keeping office hours, and ready to get to work.  We, in turn, set out our pretty decorations as a way of saying that we’re here too.  We are ready to sojourn with this Immanuel, the Word made flesh.  We just might even be ready, should Immanuel tear open the heavens this very minute.

More this week on the texts and worship from the first Sunday in Advent.

Advent Day 27: Worship

Advent Day 27

Young men and women alike, old and young together!  Let them praise the name of the Lord … (from Psalm 148)

Today is a great day to worship.

Yesterday I wrote about becoming part of a community of faith.  Tonight (Christmas Eve) there will be some beautiful opportunities to participate in a community as worshipers celebrate the birth of Christ.

Actually, for me this night is bittersweet.  In becoming a pastor, I’ve had to give up a cherished childhood tradition.  Some of my ancestors were Moravian, and the Moravians host a moving Christmas Eve service called a “lovefeast.”  For years, my family attended these services in the Winston-Salem, NC area.  I don’t live anywhere near a Moravian church and I miss attending those services.  If you live near one, go!

Yet tonight I get to have some fun dressing up as a shepherdess or Mary or some sort of “Bible woman” for our children’s Christmas Eve service.  Instead of robes, the senior pastor and I will wear the funny little bathrobe-type costumes we keep around the church for this occasion, and the children will dress up as people or animals from the Christmas story.

For me the children’s service is a chance to reflect on the meaning of worship.  By dressing down, I feel that I am putting away all my pretenses.  I am humble before the manger, in which lies a King.  I keep this image before me as I worship at other times during the year.

May your worship be humble and glorious tonight, and indeed every time you worship.

Today’s Scripture readings from the PC(USA):

Advent Day 26: Community

Advent Day 26

So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.   They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  (Acts 2:41-42)

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve!  My last two posts (tomorrow and Christmas Day) will be centered more on Christmas, so today’s post is an attempt to wrap up all the thoughts on spiritual practices that I’ve shared.    In my preparation for this blog, I did a lot of praying and thinking.  Some Christian leaders are criticizing folks’ interest in spirituality, saying it’s too loose and self-centered.  At the same time, Americans’ interest in do-it-yourself spiritual and religious practice continues to grow. 

For me the big question is, what do you do once you realize you’re on a spiritual journey?  It seems to me you have two choices.

One, you can continue the journey on your own.  Thanks to the internet and huge bookstores with religion and inspiration sections, you can keep busy for a long time.

Two, you can throw your lot in with a religious or spiritual community.  In some areas of the world, you have plenty of choices; in others less.  Then again, there are also online religious communities (I haven’t tried that out yet.)

Actually, there’s a third choice:  do both. 

Being a part of a Christian community, in addition to developing my relationship with God on my own, has given me three things: 

  1. a chance to pray with others, for others, and be prayed for.
  2. time to break bread with other people.  I like to talk, and eating together is a great chance to do that.
  3. an opportunity to learn something, to throw out my ideas, and to discuss with other people.

I realize that not all religious communities offer these things.  Some are more about commands, or performance, or squeezing people into a box.  Yet for those of us who want to be Christian, it’s all there in Acts 2.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading about and trying some of the spiritual practices I’ve described for the past several weeks.  As you move on, think and pray about a church/community you could join (or ways you could become more involved in your own community.)  Could sharing your thoughts, prayers, and meals take you to a new level?  Could opening the door to a church open other doors you had no idea existed?  Could it just maybe change your life?

Today’s Scripture reading from the PC(USA):