Christmas Light

Christmas is a lot more cheerful for me these days than it used to be.  In addition to the joy that sharing Christmas with our children brings, I really am happy to be at a church that has one Christmas Eve service instead of five.  I feel like I really get to worship on Christmas again instead of participating in what felt mostly like a frantic Christmas assembly line.  Back in those days, by this time I would be pretty Christmas-ed out.  It would be fantasizing about throwing snowballs at the cheery giant Santa at my neighbor’s house that plays tinny Christmas carols all night.  I used to say my tolerance for all the usual trappings of Christmas has about the shelf life of a dairy product.  It’s pretty curdled by the end of advent.  I’d be longing for the peanut brittle, holiday movies and Christmas music to go away because I was done.

 I’m thankful that I’ve found my Christmas Spirit again – because as you know – the thing is that we’re not done!  We’re SO not done – especially in the church.  In fact, we’re just at the beginning of the Christmas season now.  Advent has ended and Christmas is here – but oftentimes these days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day come to feel like a culmination of sorts.  A time to arrive at and then collapse.  Now do we just rest a few days and get ready for New Year’s Eve?  Isn’t there more to Christmas than this?  Isn’t there anything left to astonish us?  After the carols have been sung, after the traditions have been played out, is it just time to go home and start the cleanup?

 Back in college, my two closest friends were from Montana.  During spring break of our freshman year, one of those friends, Kaia, invited me to go home with her to Billings.  I thought that sounded much more fun than going back to my little hometown for the week, and I had never seen the mountains, so I agreed to go.

 We caught a ride with a senior from our college named Darren.  We chipped in some money for gas and piled into his tiny yellow Toyota pick-up truck for the 12 hour drive from Moorhead to Billings.  I remember his little truck didn’t have a lot of pep and it would slow down to about 40 mph on every hill and he loved John Denver and the Carpenters – so we listened to them the whole way.  Still, whenever I hear “Rocky Mountain High” or “We’ve Only Just Begun” I can only think about that long drive.

 We arrived in Billings on a cloudy evening.  The next day, Kaia’s father had arranged for a little trip for the whole family and me to go up into the mountains for a skiing adventure.  The weather was still cloudy as we drove up into the mountains and it was dark as we pulled into the lodge where we were going to stay for the night.  As we unloaded the car, Kaia’s dad said to me, “Well, Ruth, you are in the mountains now!” – but with the overcast sky and the darkness and the snow, it looked just about the same as anywhere else.

 The next morning when I woke up, however, I could see the sun was shining – and blue sky peeking through the curtains.  Like a little kid I ran to the window to look outside – and there they were – giant peaks erupting from the ground in every direction I could see.  Even though I knew they had been there when I fell asleep, the darkness had kept me from seeing them.  But now, in the light, my surroundings were no longer a mystery.  It’s amazing how the light changes things.

 The gospel of John talks about the Word coming into the world – Jesus.  He was in the beginning with God. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  That light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

 What difference does that particular light, that light of Christ, make to us?  I wonder if we might be amazed at all his light could change if it were to truly shine in the dark places in our lives? 

 If we stop to think about it, it spurs a lot of questions:  How might the choices we make be different when we see them in that radiance?  How might our interactions with loved ones, with strangers, look if we gaze at them in Christ’s luminescence?  How does last year look if we reflect on it in that particular light?  How might next year be different if we choose to air out some of those darker corners, allow Christ’s brightness into every area of our lives?

 Isn’t it possible that following that light, like a star, it might guide us, too, to places beyond our dreaming?

 You see, there is something left to astonish us.  Because we not only have a Savior who chose to come to us just as we are:  to the saints and sinners, the crabby and the joyful, the honest and the cheaters, the nice and the cruel;  but already we see that while he came to us just as we are, his presence isn’t going to leave us that way.   We come to see that in fact, he’s more than a light, he is a fire, refining us, perfecting us in fits and starts and in spite of ourselves. 

 This Christmas stuff – it may seem tame and comforting, the same carols, the same nice story about a baby king and a manger year after year – but now, if you are feeling brave, stick around and see the revolution he has come to lead in your life.   

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give  you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

 Maybe we’re ready for the peanut brittle, the reindeer, the twinkling lights, the Christmas tree and the ornaments to be gone.  That’s okay, because those things have their time and place.  They come and go with the season – and they can only take us so far.  But if we have come here this today seeking Christ, then we’ve only just begun.

Choose Life – sermon from 2.12.17

There was a book and a course I led some years ago called “Love and Logic” by Foster Cline and Jim Fay. The book and class were all about helping parents gain practical, effective, and fun techniques for fostering respect, responsibility, self-control, and good decision-making skills in children. My kids were very little when I first read the book and lead the course and I don’t remember much except one of the tools for getting your kiddos to listen to you was to give your kids control through giving them choices. The rules on the choices were that:

  1. If the child doesn’t choose, you had to be prepared to choose yourself.
  2. You had to pick two choices you could live with.
  3. Never give a choice unless you are willing to allow the child to live with the consequences of his/her bad choice.

So an example of a good choice would be “Would you rather clean your room or rake the lawn so I’ll have time to clean your room?

Or “Would you rather clean your room Saturday or Sunday?” or “Do you want to settle the problem yourselves or draw straws to see who sits by the window?”

So it was one day that I found myself in the midst of a battle of wills with Owen – who was only about three or four years old – we were standing in the kitchen and I was trying to get him to pick up his toys. Being a toddler, he wasn’t interested in what I was saying when suddenly I remembered the choices technique and I started saying, “Would you rather pick up your toys or – but I hadn’t thought of the other choice before I started talking – so I had to think on my feet and so I said the first thing that came to mind, “Would you rather pick up your toys or that I dump a cup of water on your head?” I knew it maybe wasn’t the best set of choices but I remembered that follow-through was very important – so when he proceeded to not pick up his toys, I walked over to the sink and I grabbed a small cup of water and proceeded to dump it on his head.

It may not have been one of my finest parenting moments, and the Love and Logic people probably wouldn’t like it because the choices aren’t supposed to sound like threats – but I tell you what – it got his attention. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I had done it – and I said, “I told you – you had two choices.” I gave him a towel to dry off his little head and then he put his toys away.  Since then, I’ve often used the cup of water technique and it has surprisingly become my secret weapon although I’ve never had to follow through again because they know I will use it – “Get out of bed now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” “Do your homework now, or I’ll dump a cup of water on your head.” Choices are magic.

In the Old Testament reading for today, God gives the people a clear choice – that a beautiful and prosperous way of living exists for those who choose God’s way. “Choose life”, God says.

Unfortunately, when we think of God’s commands we don’t think of them in this life-giving way – but rather as a set of rules we better follow “or else.” Do this and do that or the fires of hell await you. Do this and do that or God won’t be happy. Even worse, God’s laws often get translated into something like “if it is too fun, God probably frowns upon it.” I grew up in a home in which there was a long list of things that I was assured God didn’t like: drinking, of course, dancing, playing cards, spending time with people who weren’t Lutheran, dating before the age of 18, long hair on boys, short hair on girls, tattoos, listening to loud music on Sundays, Listening to rock music anytime and spending money on anything frivolous. The God of my childhood was a stern taskmaster I couldn’t please. Perhaps that is why instead of veering way toward Law, I tend to veer way toward grace. “Jesus loves you” is the message I want my kids and all our kids to know the best. Forgiveness and mercy for mistakes made is what resonates with me and I think is such a life-giving message the church can uniquely bring.

But the law has its place – an important place – and that is why Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – which began with the text we read a couple weeks ago with the Beatitudes (blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the poor in spirit) and continued with his instructions for being salt and light in the world as we heard last week – continues today with these laws. These laws aren’t new to the people, but Jesus is expanding on them in an interesting way.

First, he talks about murder – “You have heard it said “you shall not murder” but then he adds, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council.” He encourages that before making a gift to the altar of God, you are to make amends with anyone with whom you are having a fight or have had harsh words.”

Martin Luther expanded upon this in his explanation of the ten commandments in the small catechism – you probably remember this from your confirmation days – The Fifth Commandment is Thou shalt not kill.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God that we may not hurt nor harm our neighbor in his body, but help and befriend him in every bodily need.

Anger is a normal, human emotion but we mostly hurt ourselves if we don’t work hard to resolve anger. If it is anger about a wrong done to you, be patient with the feelings of anger that might be hard to shake, but do what you can to let go of those feelings. Prayer helps. Sometimes we need to speak words of forgiveness or sometimes we need to put as much distance as we can between ourselves and the person who has hurt us.  C.S. Lewis talks about the fact that loving one’s neighbor does not mean liking them.  This is where we can find the strength to forgive.  Loving our enemies doesn’t mean we have to think they are nice, or invite them out to coffee.

In addition, it’s fair to say that righteous anger over injustice we see in the world can even be a good thing but not if it stays only anger – only if that small hard stone of anger evolves into a seed for working for change can it do any good. Choose life, God says. Choose to let go of anger.

Next, Jesus talks about adultery – “you have heard it said, ‘you shall not commit adultery”.  Jesus expands this so that we remember it’s not just our actions that matter, but our thoughts. Don’t entertain thoughts that might cause you to sin. Luther expanded on this saying: “We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in words and deeds, and each love and honor his spouse.”

Jesus uses vivid imagery: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” It’s a powerful way of saying, “you know, if you are attracted to your co-worker, don’t start sharing personal things with each other. Don’t confide in him or her in a way that starts feelings of intimacy to grow.” We maybe can’t help if we find someone besides our partner attractive, but we can control our behavior. We must. The love shared between married partners is a gift from God, and as with any gift, it must be cherished and nurtured. This isn’t always easy by any means, but it is a holy and sacred task, nonetheless.

I like the story of a couple married for 15 years when they began having more than usual disagreements. They wanted to make their marriage work and agreed on an idea the wife had. For one month they planned to drop a slip in a “Fault” box. The boxes would provide a place to let the other know about daily irritations. The wife was diligent in her efforts and approach: “leaving the jelly top off the jar,” “wet towels on the shower floor,” “dirty socks not in hamper,” on and on until the end of the month. After dinner, at the end of the month, they exchanged boxes. The husband reflected on what he had done wrong. Then the wife opened her box and began reading. They were all the same, the message on each slip was, “I love you!”

Good story as Valentines’ Day comes up, I think. Choose life. Choose love. Choose faithfulness in your words and actions – But also this:

Sometimes relationships do break apart – and sometimes it can even be for the best if there is abuse or if trust gets so shattered it simply can’t be repaired. Divorce happens, and when it does, remember grace. I know very few couples who have divorced without trying very hard to make things work. If divorce has been part of your journey, remember you are loved. I pray you feel God’s grace surrounding you. Our vows and commitments we make to each other matter to God, but we matter even more. When things fall apart, God is still here to help us put the pieces back together and start again. Always.

So – God says to us – “Choose Life” – Choosing life means paying attention to God’s laws, taking them to heart, using them as our guidepost for living the best, most whole life possible.  Choosing life also means we remember at the beginning, middle, and end of all our striving, there is grace. 

 

Love

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

A few years ago I presided at the funeral of a young man who had died suddenly from a previously undiagnosed heart condition. He felt like maybe he was coming down with something and went to lay down and take a nap and just never woke up again.  39 years old. Of course, it was a devastating time for the family. I met with his wife to plan the service and we talked for a long time about their life together.  They had been extremely close – truly great companions.  She told me many stories – about how they met at a bar on Saint Patrick’s day, a holiday particularly special to them as they were both Irish, and by the end of that evening when he drove away she said out loud to herself, “he is the one.”  She told me about all the things they loved to do together, how thoughtful and capable he was.  I remember she also talked about their wedding fifteen years before. They had been married in a Lutheran church and she talked about how much fun they had planning their wedding and making it just how they wanted it to be and it had included some things they thought were unconventional and quirky. They liked that their wedding hadn’t been like every other wedding and how she and her husband used to kind of joke about how every wedding they went to always used the same scripture – from I Corinthians 13:1-13. No, they would never have this reading about love that was so common and used all the time.

Well, the wife asked me to choose the scripture for the funeral service and maybe because she had joked about this text from I Corinthians, I kept thinking about it and as I thought about everything I knew about this young man and how he lived his life and the love they shared, I asked his widow if I could share this reading from I Corinthians at his funeral and why I wanted to do that.  She agreed, and in fact, I often use it now at funerals because of verse 15 where it says that faith, hope, and love abide and the greatest of these is love.  To abide means to last, to stay, to remain – and what a comforting thought it is to know that even though death happens, there are some things that last, that remain – God’s love for us, surely, and by God’s grace, the love gifted to us by one another in this life.

So although this text is one of the most well-known and maybe overused texts there is, it truly is a great text when we stop to see what is really being said. Certainly it is a great text for church communities to look at as we think about our life together – particularly if we look at what was happening in Corinth when this was written.

I Corinthians was written to a community that was having a very difficult time staying together. There was division, disorder in worship, people were bickering over spiritual gifts and there was an overall sense of immaturity in the church. Paul was writing to the Corinthians to get them to move past all of that and to live, as he describes it, in a more excellent way:  to live in love.

Live in love.  We might think that sounds a little bit flowery. A little bit too much like a tagline from a Hallmark movie of the week, but the truth is that “live in love” could perhaps be the best mission statement a church could possibly have.

Because without love, it doesn’t matter what budgets, buildings, or missional strategies we have. A balanced budget, an attractive and well-kept building, a perfectly worded vision statement – these are not the things that give the church the shape that God desires. Even if we were to have our Bibles and Small Catechism all memorized, be theologically rigorous, or even if we were to excel at activism and pursuing justice every day – if we do all these things and forget to be a community of love, we have lost our way.

It’s unfortunate that in our language we tend to water down the word love.  I mean, isn’t it just a little bit tragic that we use the same word to say such wildly different things – such as, “I love peanut butter.”  And “I love my children.”  While we know what we mean – that peanut butter and our children are loved in totally different ways, this overuse can tend to take away some of the power behind the word.

The thing that is often overlooked in this text is that the love being talked about here is active.  It is best translated “love shows patience” and “love acts with kindness” – love is an active, busy thing which never ceases working. The point of the text is not to share some flowery description of thoughts of love – but rather, to describe what love does.

It’s probably important to note as well that in this text it never says that this kind of love feels good. We’ve talked in our Bible study on Wednesdays about how there are different kinds of love in the Greek language – there is “philia” which is the love shared between friends and there is “eros” which is passionate love, and there is “agape” – which is the kind of love God has for us. That is the kind of love being talked about here. And it rarely is a feel-good kind of love when we practice this kind of love. In fact, in the context of this text, it would be better to say that the measure of love is its capacity for tension and disagreement without division.

So this is why it is a great text for church communities, for funerals, and yes, for weddings. No, this text isn’t about flowery, romantic love, it’s not the kind of love decorated in the frosting of wedding cakes or dressed up in a white dress and a black tux – but the kind of love that people know when they live life together for any real amount of time.

Louis De Bernieres, the novelist, wrote “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. It is like roots that grow toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms have fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.

It’s the kind of love that works to forgive and rebuild trust when trust has been broken.

It’s the kind of love that weathers the years – years that surely contain joy and laughter and good times as well as worries and disappointments and aching struggles.

It’s the kind of love that celebrates all that is good and sticks with it through the bad.

And sometimes it is the kind of love that knows it is time to let go of another person and trust that even this can be done with love and caring respect.

I knew an extraordinary couple at my church in Colorado who had been married for ten years and had two children when they realized after many years of therapy and prayers that they both did not want to be married anymore.  They cared for each other, they wanted the best for each other, neither were having an affair with someone else – they just came to the mutual conclusion that they shouldn’t be married. An extremely faithful couple, they asked me if I could pray with them the day they signed their divorce papers.  They talked about how important prayer and being in their church had been to them during their wedding – and they needed God’s presence now more than ever as they divorced.  They came over to the church and we went into the quiet sanctuary and I shared some scripture and some prayers, they took off their rings and gave them back to each other.  They hugged and they cried. It was so deeply sad, but so full of love at the same time. And over the next years I saw this couple handle their divorce with an immense amount of love.  Sunday nights they still always were together as a family for supper.  Both parents went to all the games and school activities to support the kids. Their houses were only blocks apart so that the kids could easily go from one house to the other. They might have been divorced, but their love did not end. It was an extraordinary thing to behold.

But real love always is.

I think of my pastor friend who told me about how she has always given her children a blessing every morning before they leave for school and one day she and her youngest were having a quarrel over something and he grabbed his backpack and went out the door that morning, slamming the door behind him.  But a moment later he came back in and said gruffly, “you didn’t bless me yet.”  And she blessed her boy with his brow still furrowed in anger at her and she with tears running down her face. Real love is an extraordinary thing.

I think of Mickey, a man whose funeral I did almost exactly a year ago.  Diagnosed with cancer in the spring, it spread quickly through his body and by Christmas he was in hospice care – his wife, Amanda, sleeping every night in the chair by his bed. Each day I would ask her how she was doing and if she was getting rest but all she cared about was being near to him, doing whatever she could to ease his pain in his final days.  Real love is an extraordinary thing.

And I think of how God has seen fit to love us so much – giving Jesus’ life for us so that we don’t have to fear death.  I can’t pretend to understand it, but I know it is grace and because of it, we need to do all we can to bless the world with grace as well, to live in love.

That is my prayer for us, dear church, I pray that we live in love.

Because Real love is an extraordinary thing.