The Most Beautiful Girl in the World

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (an exercise to write a reflection each day on a song from my morning run)

God has made everything beautiful in its time.  – Ecclesiastes 3:11 

 Oftentimes a word or a phrase will get stuck in my head.  Especially as I am praying over a certain text or a certain thought or a certain church season, a particular word will keep coming to mind stay nestled there.  I’ve learned to pay attention to that.  That usually I’m supposed to be learning something – and that usually if I carry it around with me long enough, ponder it as I go about my daily tasks, when I’m in the car or on a walk, that over time God just might give me something to say about it. 

 So as I’ve thought and prayed in the last days, the word that has been rumbling around my mind is the word, “Beauty.”

 Beauty.  I catch glimpses of it in the ways my parishioners care for each other, and their families, and our church. 

 Beauty.  We are surrounded by it in the landscape on all sides.  I don’t think there are many places as lovely as where we are right now.   And the beauty of our church is also a treasure.  The stained glass, the history that is soaked into the wood and beams.  Now the Advent wreath and a Christmas tree.  What could be more beautiful than this?

 If I asked you to define “beauty”, what would you say?    Would you show me pictures of the sunset at your vacation by the lake?  Would you show me pictures of a sleeping baby, a candle burning, or Elizabeth Taylor around the year 1958?

 If I asked you to define “beauty”, what would you say?  Is it found in the smell of rain?  A silent snowfall?  The smile of a groom as he sees his bride walking toward him down the aisle?  The sight of home after having been away far too long?  The sound of Chopin being played by someone who can play it well?

 Beauty.  If I asked you to define it, what would you say?  On the surface we might have similar answers, but I believe that in our hearts, our answers are as unique as we are.  Because how can I explain to you how beautiful the sound of my husband’s voice is to my ears?  And I could never fully appreciate the beauty that you see when you look at that picture of your old friend, or the lovely memories that the smell of woodsmoke or baking bread or molasses cookies conjures up for you.  The lights of a busy city might be attractive to one set of eyes and look simply like a mess to someone else. 

 My mother-in-law’s idea of beauty – at least of what made for beautiful home decoration was very different from my idea.  I’ll never forget the first gift I received from Chad’s mom after we were married.  When we had gone to visit his parents in New Mexico, I could tell that his mom took great pride in their house and she talked often about how she enjoyed finding things to decorate the house.  Every room had a theme – the living room was all in southwest prints and colors, the kitchen had a farm theme with a concentration on lots of roosters and hens adorning the cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers, placemats and dishes…and the guest bathroom was decorated in “Shabby Chic” as she called it.  It was basically lots of pink and white colors, rose patterns and antique-y looking candle-holders.  I was impressed with the work that had gone into each room – even if it wasn’t particularly how I would have decorated a house.  In fact, at that time having just finished four years of college and four years of seminary and two years of mission work where I just lived out of a backpack, the only “theme” my house could be said to have had back then would have been “early rummage sale.”

Anyway, I must have complimented her decorating in that “shabby chic” bathroom a little too overzealously because a few months later when she came to visit her gift to me was to redo my whole bathroom in “shabby chic.”  In my mind I kept thinking, “Why couldn’t she remember that I complimented their hot tub and their expansive wine collection instead?!” 

 Well even though I was hesitant because it wouldn’t have been my first choice for decorating my bathroom, it really turned out very nice.

 And the funny thing about that is that I remember when it all was happening – at the time I didn’t like it because I felt like she was pushing her idea of beauty onto me.  But now that years have gone by – years in which I got to know her and be a part of their family – and especially now after she has died, those things she gave me that I once accepted hesitatingly, I can see the beauty in them now because they are filled with story.  I can see her reflection when I look at those things – so they are beautiful to me now.

 Have you ever noticed that?  How as time goes by you are able to notice the beauty in things you weren’t able to see before?  It’s like our eyes grow wiser with age, too. 

Like I remember how I couldn’t wait to leave my small hometown and the miles and miles of tiresome country roads that surrounded it – but now when I go back there all I notice are the pretty lakes and peaceful fields. 

And I think about how I approached motherhood so hesitantly.  All I could think about before we had kids was how I had hated babysitting when I was young.  I was uninterested in small children and their strange noises and smells.  But now that I have my own children, I think they are extraordinarily beautiful – and not just mine – but all of them.  I’m in love with every child in our church and every one I see on the street or on television.  I want to adopt them all and bring them home – because now my eyes are wise enough to see how God teaches us amazing things through our children.

Beauty.  Where do you see beauty?  I think beauty has been on my mind this advent because I’ve been pondering not only unique beauty or how our perceptions of beauty change over time, but mostly I’ve been thinking about how even though we like to wrap up this season in shiny paper and twinkling lights, you and I who are gathered here know that it is all about so much more than that.  The pretty decorations and festive adornments around every corner may be nice, but we know that they aren’t the point.  They don’t even begin to hint at the wonder of this season.

A stark example of this comes in a story I love about one pastor who got fed up with all the decorations and clutter.  He felt like all the Christmas decorations had gotten so out of hand that it was obscuring people’s vision of the “reason for the season,” Jesus –- the Jesus that was born in the middle of Herod’s bloody genocide, the Jesus who was born a refugee with no room in the inn, the Jesus who knew suffering from the cradle to the cross. So this pastor went through the sanctuary the night before the big Christmas service and spread out manure all over the floor -– nasty, stinky piles of manure. As folks came in the next day in their best attire, he preached … and did he ever.

 He preached about how the original story of Christmas was not about malls and decorations. He preached about a story that was not pretty. He preached about a God who enters the ugliness, the brokenness of this world and redeems all that is ugly and broken. It is a story the congregation will never forget. And though his methods may sound shocking, the truth of the Christmas story was told.

  I was reading recently that in Ancient times the Persons of the Trinity were sometimes referred to not as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – but as Goodness, Beauty, and Truth. They were called the perfections of God.  Not that Goodness, Beauty and Truth were God – but that those attributes pointed to God.  That when you saw those things, you were in the presence of holiness. This is why we should love those things that are good and beautiful and true – because they are reminders of God. 

So then – if we are looking for our best definition of Beauty – we find it in Christ.   If we want beauty, True Beauty, we won’t find it then in most of what the world sells us as beautiful.  Rather true Beauty is as a pastor friend of mine writes: beauty, like Christ, is found under the sign of its opposite: life from death, speech from silence, light from darkness. A crown from a cross, resurrection from the grave, God is closest in suffering and grief. Anything else is pretending, and “putting roses on the cross.”  True Beauty is love incarnate, living in solidarity with the poor, sick, oppressed and outcast, taking action against earthly injustice.

So then – how can we make this lovely season of advent even more beautiful?  We can do it by seeking the kind of beauty Christ represents – which was never about things that were pleasing to the ear and eye – rather it was about love in action.  It was compassion and kindness and generosity even when it wasn’t comfortable or convenient at all.

We can make this Advent different and truly a time of preparing for Christ’s coming by doing things that celebrate who he is to us.  This doesn’t include being a part of the frantic race to buy more things to fill our homes or to give to others who already have everything they need.  This does include things like making conscious decisions to make advent a time of worship, spending less, giving more, and loving all.

Imagine if we all bought one less present and decided to help others one extra time during this Advent season? 

What does the world need more – one more ugly sweater or useless gadget for someone who already has more than enough, or one additional moment of sharing with people in need out of what God has given us this year?  What kind of blessing could we be?  What kind of good work could we do in Jesus’ name? 

All I know is that something like that would look a little more like a time that is preparing our hearts for Christ’s coming.  It could make this Advent season ring with Christ’s presence.  It could be beautiful. 

The Most Beautiful Girl in the World

by Prince

Could U be the most beautiful girl in the world?
It’s plain 2 see U’re the reason that God made a girl
When the day turns into the last day of all time
I can say I hope U are in these arms of mine
And when the night falls before that day I will cry
I will cry tears of joy cuz after U all one can do is die, oh

Could U be the most beautiful girl in the world?
Could U be?
It’s plain 2 see U’re the reason that God made a girl
Oh, yes U are

How can I get through days when I can’t get through hours?
I can try but when I do I see U and I’m devoured, oh yes
Who’d allow, who’d allow a face 2 be soft as a flower? Oh
I could bow (bow down) and feel proud in the light of this power
Oh yes, oh

Could U be (could U be) the most beautiful girl in the world?
Could U be?
It’s plain 2 see U’re the reason that God made a girl
Oh, yes U are

And if the stars ever fell one by one from the sky
I know Mars could not be, uh, 2 far behind
Cuz baby, this kind of beauty has got no reason 2 ever be shy
Cuz honey, this kind of beauty is the kind that comes from inside

Could U be (could U be) the most beautiful girl in the world?
So beautiful, beautiful
It’s plain 2 see (plain 2 see) U’re the reason that God made a girl

Oh yeah! (Oh, yes U are)
Girl (Could U be?)
U must be … oh yeah!
(Could U be?)
U’re the reason … oh yeah
(Could) [x3]

Great Expectations – Advent 1

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 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 deep blue 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?

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?