Mary

I’ve been thinking about you, Mary. This time of year I tend to think of you a lot – partly because everywhere in this season of short days and long nights we hear about you in our carols and in our scripture readings. In the Lutheran church we don’t tend to spend as much time talking about you as do our brothers and sisters in the catholic church, but this time of year we turn our gaze toward you a bit more.

I’ll always remember how much I thought about you the two Decembers I was pregnant with my sons. I felt like I experienced the Advent season, the season of waiting and expectation, in a whole new way then, and I thought about you, Mary, in a new way. Between you and me, during the worship services on Christmas Eve those years I was boiling in my robe and stole, both my boys were like little furnaces growing bigger by the day – so I was always hot. The Christmas tree in the sanctuary at my church in Colorado obstructed the view of the chairs where the pastors sat, and so during the hymns, I stood behind that tree, took off my shoes, and rested my face on the cool marble pillar back there. I was so hot, so tired, so not glowing or any of the good things they say about pregnant women – but I was thankful. And I thought about you, Mary. You were no longer just a character in a story I had heard my whole life. You were a mom, like me.  

But of course, much different than me, too – because your pregnancy was announced to you by an angel and all.  And you were probably about fourteen years old at most. You had never slept with a man, you were unmarried.

So, when Luke writes that you were “perplexed” or “troubled” at what the angel was announcing to you, I tend to think that must have been an understatement of biblical proportions. I mean, I feel perplexed or a bit troubled when the dryer quits working or if there is stain on the couch that has appeared that no one is taking responsibility for. But when an angel appears with news that is not only going to change your life but the entire world through you – well, I can think of better words to use: stupefied, astonished, flabbergasted, dumbfounded.

And, Mary, isn’t it wild how streamlined Luke makes your story? I mean, just a few neat and tidy verses and your tale is told. In verse 31 you begin to find out all that is about to happen. You ask one question, “how exactly is this going to happen?” in verse 34, and by verse 38 you say essentially, “Okay then.”

Pretty sure that moment wasn’t quite so neat, tidy, and quick as Luke portrays it. Mary, only you and God and perhaps Gabriel got a glimpse, too, of how this really went down. I’ve been thinking about you and wondering – If you felt terrified, if you wanted to say “pick another girl from the village, please!”, if you had sleepless nights over the months that followed as you wondered, and worried at this strange blessing that was happening to you.

Through history you are often portrayed as so meek and mild. But Mary, that’s not how I think of you. I think of how brave you were. Brave to say, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” even if your voice was trembling when you said it.  God blessed you with that bravery and Gabriel reminded you that nothing is impossible with God. I wonder if you repeated that to yourself over and over, a mantra of sorts that held you up through the morning sickness, the swelling, the heartburn, all the glorious accompaniments to pregnancy? “nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible, nothing is impossible with God.”

I think about you, Mary, and this story of how you believed and trusted God. For however many doubts were woven in along with it, God blessed you with just enough faith – and you leaned into that faith to carry you through all that was to come. Day by day.

That’s what I wish Luke could have written more about. Sure, he was just trying to tell a story and it’s easy to criticize the storyteller, but he made it sound so easy. We get to learn so little about you and we are left to wonder so much. And if we aren’t careful we can think that you had some superhuman faith and bravery and if we were only better people, we would have that kind of faith and bravery, too. We can think that as followers of God we can’t have doubts and we need to be sure and certain all the time, confident as we proclaim with voices that don’t shake, “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

But you were a fourteen year old girl, Mary. Maybe as young as twelve. You were the age of a middle-schooler. You were a human being, like any of us. Luke doesn’t write about your fears or hesitations, he doesn’t linger over how common you were, how completely unremarkable you were compared to any other girl alive in those days. Rather, he focuses on what happened through you – which is, of course, the point. Jesus is the point. Jesus is the reason. Jesus is Christmas.

But you mattered, Mary. You mattered so much – I hope you knew that. You matter because we all matter. You matter because you remind us that God is able to work through any of us. You remind us that the extraordinary can still happen – because nothing is impossible with God.

26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
    be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
    the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
    no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.”

35 The angel answered,

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
    the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
    will be called Holy, Son of God.

36-38 “And did you know that your cousin Elizabeth conceived a son, old as she is? Everyone called her barren, and here she is six months pregnant! Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”

And Mary said,

Yes, I see it all now:
    I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
    just as you say.

Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26-38)

Longest Night

December 20, 2014

Tomorrow night is the longest night of the year. When I get to this point in the year, I can almost feel my bones beginning to ache for sunshine and warmth.

As we gathered at Earl Huse’s graveside this past Wednesday, a cold rain was falling and we shivered as we prayed the familiar prayers and sang the songs he loved. His longtime friend, Pat Gorton, said the words, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and made the sign of the cross over his casket. It’s hard to grieve and to pronounce a blessing at the same time, but she did it.

And I guess this is what we do when we gather for the Blue Christmas service tomorrow night. Those who are sad or lonesome or sick or grieving or just feeling “blue” during this time of year – we all gather together to lift up those real and raw feelings to God, but also claim the promise of hope that is just as real: Emmanuel, “God with us.”

I believe that promise and I have seen it come true over and over in my life. Sometimes it has felt muted – during moments of great difficulty, or when praying the same prayers over and over and over again by a hospice bedside, or when the cancer is diagnosed and ravages mercilessly, or when a young life is snuffed out, or ____________________(insert any bad thing that could happen), but nothing can silence the song of God’s promise. Somehow it is able to sing to us even in the worst moments, the unimaginable moments. Still, even there, always – Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

I’ll share with you a poem from Jan Richardson:

Blessing for the Longest Night

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.
It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.
So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.
You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.
This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.
So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.
This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Blessings to you as this Advent season draws to a close.

Pastor Ruth

Blessed Imperfection

Advent Reflection – December 10, 2014

So far, what have I done that has made this Advent season different than any other? Let’s see, I have been slowly feeding my “piggy bank” for ELCA World Hunger. I found a five-dollar bill in the cemetery the other day and put it in the World Hunger piggy bank instead of using it to buy myself a latte – so that felt like a step in the right direction. However, we entirely forgot to light our home advent wreath this past Sunday. I’ve written some Advent devotions for this blog but I’ve also had just as many days that I ran out of time or energy or inspiration and called on other writers and blogs or just didn’t do anything. So far, Advent is looking a lot like every other church season – a season of stops and starts, a time of victories and failures. It turns out that I prepare about as well for the birth of Jesus as I prepare for anything – kind of last minute and haphazard – and please don’t look in my closet or under the beds because who knows the clutter and disarray you will find.

It is an imperfect Advent, an imperfect life. I can’t take comfort in that because I wish I could always fully complete all the grand plans and sacred endeavors I begin. If I could, I would weigh 125 lbs. and have written five books by now (all bestsellers). And yet, I do take comfort in this: there is some One greater at work in my life than me. There is a greater plan that has been devised than any I could dream. In some mystical and miraculous way, God has chosen me and you to participate in this plan, God’s plan. We won’t often understand how or why life unfolds as it does, and yet there are times we catch glimpses of the beauty and blessedness of it all. Maybe that will happen for you sometime this Advent season, maybe it won’t. Maybe Christmas morning will dawn with a fresh peace and renewed strength in your heart, or maybe you’ll wake up with the stomach flu and stay in bed all day. Either way, all is well, because this story we live is about more than you and me, what we do or don’t do, rather, it is about God’s story. We are part of it – and it is an immense gift. Our greatest task appears to be that we simply must open our eyes and see it.

Most afternoons these days I spend a little time sitting with one of our church members who is now on Hospice care at the Sunset Home. His remaining time on earth appears short. There is nothing fun about these days for him as his body and mind slowly fade. I don’t even know if he hears me when I read the scripture to him anymore – but I still read it and I pray out loud for him. It seems so stark and strange to walk past the festive lights and trees that are adorning the Sunset home these days and often the sound of cheerful carols coming from the chapel, to go into his quiet room where death is drawing near. Yet it strikes me that it is precisely in these moments of stark contrasts that we often sense the Spirit’s presence more closely than ever. Actually, I’ve come to realize that sitting in that room next to Earl and listening to him breathe with the sounds of the world going on outside has become what will set this Advent apart for me as blessed. It wasn’t the ritual I planned or expected, but in it, I have felt God’s presence. I’m so thankful for that.

Has God surprised you lately?

Jeremiah 29:11
11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

Much to be done…

Advent 4 – December 3, 2014

Jeremiah 17:7-8: But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.

The word “Advent” comes from the Latin word “advenire” meaning “to come to”. Everything about this season is pointing us toward what is ahead – like scanning the distance for a destination we know is out there, but we cannot yet see.

When I was growing up, we lived about three hours from my grandmother on my mom’s side but we would regularly take trips to see her. I knew the road to her house very well, the curve around the giant hill by Ashby, the crystal blue lake by Barrett, the vast stretch of plains between Morris and Appleton, and then finally I could start scanning the distance for the water tower of Madison, my grandma’s town. I knew how long the journey would take as I had traveled that road so many times, and I always felt joy as we neared her house because I knew the familiar and wonderful embrace of my Grandma would be there waiting for us.

Perhaps Advent can feel like that in the church. A simple time of waiting and journeying through our days with our eyes fixed solely on Christmas. We know the joy that is to come and we can’t wait to herald the birth of our King and Savior, Jesus the Christ, yet again.

However, this is not a passive time of waiting. It’s not like sitting in a car and watching the scenery going by. There is much to do, and as people of faith we strive to remember this season is about different ambitions than what we see in ad campaigns.

I’m a fan of the organization “Advent Conspiracy” that has been around for a few years now and their message bears repeating. They stress a simple message during this season:

Worship fully – because Christmas begins and ends with Jesus.

Spend less – and free your resources for things that truly matter.

Give more – of your presence: your hands, your works, your time, your heart.

Love all – the poor, the forgotten, the marginalized, the sick, in ways that make a difference.

If we focus on these things, we will truly have prepared well during this season of Advent and Christmas morning will dawn with more joy and hope than ever before.

Reflection: What is truly the best gift you have ever received? Why?

p.s. You can check out Advent Conspiracy at http://www.adventconspiracy.org or on Facebook.

Tipping Point

Advent Day 3, 2014

Joshua 24:14-16: 14″Now, therefore, fear the LORD and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15″If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” 16The people answered and said, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods;…”

I often wonder what Jesus would think if he wandered into many of our modern-day churches. Would he be bewildered or pleased at all that has been built in his name? I have a deep love for churches and church life, but I wonder how Jesus would regard the beautiful stained glass, the carefully constructed liturgies, the long-held traditions and trinkets of our life together. Would he nod in appreciation at our steadfast devotion and all that the generations have tried to do in his name? Would he be aghast at how sidetracked we get and how much time and money and energy we spend on things that have little to do with sharing the Gospel?

During this season of Advent, there is much at stake. It’s not just another window of time, another color of church banners, rather, everything we believe and are and might yet become has reached its tipping point. Each of us must choose now whether we are people who will only rest in our faith, or if we will act in our faith. Each of us must choose today whether we just believe what Jesus said, or whether we will live what Jesus said.

With each choice we make, each interaction we have, and with each dollar we spend, we show what we really think of Jesus’ words to us, his life and his death. Today must be the day when we claim whose we are with all that we are. This is the day we must do it because yesterday has passed and tomorrow is only a possibility.

“Disturb us, O Lord, when we are too well-pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, O Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the water of life, when, having fallen in love with time, we have ceased to dream of eternity and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim. Stir us, O Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture into wider sea where storms show Thy mastery, where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes and invited the brave to follow. Amen.” – Desmond Tutu

Prayer: Dear Lord, help us to fully live our lives for you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Reflection: What is something you can do today to boldly live your faith in Jesus Christ?

Steadfast

Lamentations 3:22-23
22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;[a]
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Yesterday some children and adults from Our Savior’s gathered to make Advent wreaths. As we decorated the wreaths with baubles and ribbons and candles, we talked about how we mark time with the wreath, each week lighting more candles as we wait for the birth of the Light of the World, Jesus.

It’s a simple, steady tradition, but it helps us stay mindful that this is a time set apart. Like many of the customs we hold dear in the church, there’s no fancy laser lights involved or big screen or promise of excitement whatsoever, and I imagine this is why many grow restless with the church and our various traditions. And yet, I can’t count the number of times that a family whom I rarely see at church comes to me for a burial or a wedding, and then they want those same and steady traditions, the well-known scriptures, to taste of and find comfort in the same-ness of it all again.

I guess we all need to know that there is something that never changes. Some of us regularly take comfort in the steadfast love of God and the church rituals we hold dear. We would feel lost without Sunday morning worship, the rich purple banners on the church wall, the presence of font and altar rail and pulpit as the touchstone for our weeks. Others find less value in structure of church and liturgy yet still feel God’s presence near in other places no less holy – home, nature, a good cup of coffee and conversation with a friend.

Perhaps the greatest blessing is when we can learn to spot God’s fingerprints everywhere and learn how to thank God in everything. Whether we sense God’s steadfast love while gathered with others for worship or while sitting on a quiet porch alone in the moonlight, great is God’s faithfulness to us. Always. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Dear Lord, we pray that even as the days grow colder and darker, your love will always be the fire and light that warms us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Reflection: Where do you feel God’s presence nearest to you? Why?

Advent

In many places, Advent is cold. It is the church season of beginnings and yet it is winter and dark – there is very little in the natural world pointing to burgeoning life – but it is there. Under the ground the seeds are waiting for the warmth of the sun to bring them to bloom again. The trees will again show their leaves. The days will be getting longer and warmer again. It may not feel like it will happen soon – but the promise of it is there.

And there is a promise for us as well. In the midst of the things in our lives that may feel like dead-ends, that may feel like they are lost, or that we are just too tired to think about – God reminds us:

Those things for which you long…there is yet time!
Those things you dream about…they are still possible!
Those prayers you have been praying…God still answers!

No matter how today finds us – whether tired or refreshed, peaceful or anxious, hopeful or hopeless – there is a message we needs to hear: The story of Advent is the story of Emmanuel – God with us – and God is always about beginnings. Always. Even in the darkest night. Even in a hospital room. Even in hospice. Because it was even so on the cross.