Christ Still Comes

Christ still comes – ready or not.

Grace to you and peace on this Christmas morning.  Advent has come and gone;  the candlelight of Christmas Eve is over – and here we are in the broad daylight of Christmas day. 

To tell you the truth it all snuck up on me.  We just moved into a different house and even though it was several weeks ago we still haven’t uncovered the Christmas ornaments or lights.  You wouldn’t know it is Christmas if you came to our house unless you saw the spectacular lights on our next-door neighbor’s house.  It is surprising to me that even though we’ve had our advent journey and lit the candles on the advent wreath one by one, I wasn’t quite ready for Christmas Eve to arrive yesterday.   Frankly, even now I’m not all that filled with what anyone would recognize as stereotypical Christmas spirit.  I’ve had a cold all week, I’m sure I’ve gained at least three or four pounds since Thanksgiving, and for the 34th year straight I haven’t sent out any Christmas cards.  Yesterday as I scuffled my way from the parking lot into the church I was in a sour mood.  I couldn’t find the right outfit to wear, my hair had turned out wrong, the cat had thrown up on the kitchen floor, and my head was full of congestion.  And worse than that, I felt guilty that I was in such a bad mood on the morning of Christmas Eve.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t shift my gaze from myself to that manger.  No matter how much I wanted to be full of Christmas cheer, my demeanor better suited Good Friday.

I wonder if you have ever felt that way during the Christmas season? Have you ever felt like if you could just pause for a moment and catch your breath you might be able to enjoy this time of year a little more –but there is too much to do:  too many people to see, gatherings to attend, gifts to buy and cookies to bake?  Have you ever felt like it’s too hard to dig through the wrapping paper and tinsel and colored lights to even begin to find the real meaning of this holiday?  Wouldn’t it be kind of nice if we could put off Christmas until we were really ready for it?  Until a time when everything was in place and we all felt like celebrating?

Well, that is how I felt.  But Christmas came anyway.  It came in spite of me.

A friend of mine in Minneapolis told me a story about her young daughter who is fascinated with the little green plastic army figures that belong to her brother.  Her daughter picks up these army figures and moves them around the house and so my friend said she wasn’t surprised when one day a few weeks ago she noticed in her family nativity scene, there wasn’t just Mary and Joseph, but six little green army men pointing guns in all directions.  She said that she immediately took out the little green figures, but then she realized that maybe it was more symbolic of the true story of Jesus’ coming than she had initially thought.  Jesus was not born into a world free of violence or hate.  He was not born into a perfect world – but rather he was born into our world, right how it was, and he still comes into our lives, right now, just how we are.

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  We dress up our houses and dress up ourselves and pour all sorts of time and effort into creating just the right holiday and to exude some sort of Christmas spirit to those around us – but the truth is that Jesus came for Scrooge just as much as Tiny Tim.  He came just as much for the antagonist as the protagonist, as much for the villain as the hero, as much for the person you like the least, as for the person you love the most.   We gather to celebrate Christmas and the good news of Jesus’ birth – but the best news is that he came even for those who cannot or maybe even will not celebrate his birth.  That is amazing love.  A love that though we may search for it, actually finds us all along.

One December when I was around 20 years old.  I was full of righteous indignation at the commercial excess of the holidays and convinced that no one understood the depths of my feelings about this – including my family –  and so on my Christmas break from college instead of going home or going to a friend’s house or staying at school and working, I went out to stay at my old Bible camp by myself. 

I had high hopes for spiritual enlightenment as I went to live in the wilds of northern Minnesota for those weeks.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.  It was my secret pilgrimage.  I sat and wrote in my journal by firelight and thought deep thoughts about the true meaning of Christmas far away from any of the commercial trappings, far away from my family’s traditions. 

On Christmas day in the midst of the silence, the phone rang – it was my mom.  To this day I don’t know how she tracked me down – but she called just to say “merry Christmas” and “I love you.”  Although I was annoyed that my pilgrimage was not so secret after all, it provided me with the greatest revelation I had that week.  There was nothing I was going to find by putting myself apart from everyone for that week.  No great words of wisdom were written down in that journal.  Although I had listened for God in the sound of the trees and the quiet of the snow dancing across the ice-covered lake, it wasn’t my searching that brought me closer to any great understanding.  Rather, the things I needed to find were looking for me all along.  The things I needed to find had been knit into my life from the very start.  The things I needed to find were things I just had to learn to recognize rather than hunt down and conquer. 

What does all this mean?  It means that especially today, don’t worry so much about the searching – you have already been found.  It means Christ comes to us again and again.  Emmanuel – God with us – God with us in so many ways!  Christ comes to us in parents, in each other, in strangers, in words that startle and amaze us, in the sacraments we share, and in a manger.   Christ comes to us though we may not feel ready or happy or sane.  Comes to us just as we are.  When all is said and done, Christmas Spirit is something we are given, not something we create.  And for that I am grateful.  Merry Christmas. 

(December 2004)

A Christmas Day homily

One of my best friends and his wife are expecting a new baby any day now.  So I’ve been having fun doing a little baby-clothes shopping.  Holding the soft sleepers and tiny blankets brings back memories of days that weren’t that long ago when my own boys were that small. 

Most of the lessons of parenthood are things they truly have to learn on the job.  No matter how much reading or preparing the nursery or talking to other parents one does to try to get ready for a baby, one is never really ready.  A parent can only gain the wisdom they need by experiencing parenthood – being in the trenches, experiencing the sleep-deprivation, the complete disorder of once orderly lives, the complete surrender of schedules and priorities and resources to their teeny-tiny, demanding, unreasonable, yet entirely beloved baby.

Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Charles Osgood states, “Babies are always more trouble than you thought — and more wonderful.”

Leo Burke writes, “People who say they sleep like a baby usually don’t have one.”

And Theresa Bloomingdale once said, “If your baby is “beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time,” you’re the grandparent.”

Whoever would have thought something as small as a baby could change everything.  Yet it has always been this way.

In fact, that is a good way to think about today – because of course it is one baby’s birth in particular that we gather to celebrate this morning. 

One of the stories about Jesus’ birth that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years is the story of the three wise men placing gifts before the baby Jesus and throwing their own little royal baby shower. Yet if you stop to think about it, the gifts are  strange to bring for a newborn baby.  There’s no soft blue blankets no baby toys, no diaper genie or onesies or an ancient version of any of these things. 

Remember the gifts they brought? They placed at His feet gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Mary and Joseph did with Jesus’ gifts, but since having babies of my own every time I hear the story, I personally have to wonder what Mary really thought of those presents.  Perhaps she understood their symbolic meaning – but I have a feeling that it could just as easily be that in her mind she is thinking, “Come on!  Couldn’t these guys have consulted with their wives or even a sister and maybe come up with something a little more useful?”

However, the story seems to assume that the reader won’t think these gifts are strange at all – and when one pauses to look at what each gift represents, it makes all the difference in this story.  I was recently reminded of what their meanings were – and I thought I’d share a little bit about these meanings with you this morning.

 Gold – it is perhaps easy to guess why this was one of the gifts – because gold has always been a symbol of royalty. This gift signaled the wise men’s understanding of who this child was, and how we should receive Him. Because of this child, we are transformed from lowly paupers to royalty seated with Christ. He had to leave the perfection and grandeur of heaven in order to walk among us, trading His royalty for a time, but never losing His deity.

Frankincense.  Incense was a symbol of His purity. Because He was born sinless and lived a perfect life, Jesus was that perfect lamb, without blemish, offered up for our sins. Incense was used as a fragrant offering to God. But the beauty of the scent couldn’t be released without being touched by fire. Jesus’ life became a fragrant offering through the flames of affliction. And in His death, we receive His purity.

Myrrh is the third gift – and this is the gift that no parent would ever want to receive – because it symbolized death.  Myrrh was used for embalming in those times. As these men laid this odd collection of gifts at the feet of this child, a little shiver had to have run down His mother’s spine when that last one was placed before Him. Of course she had known that Jesus was no normal baby.  The angel Gabriel had told her that Jesus would be great, and he would be called the “Son of the Most High, and the Lord God would give him the throne of his ancestor David and he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end.” 

But when she said “Here I am, Lord, let it be with me according to your word” – could she ever have understood the kind of sacrifice this child would make?   This gift of myrrh may have been her first clue about the inestimable amount of ways this baby was not only going to change her life, but change the world – through his life and ultimately through his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold the story of this new, sacred life.

They were three gifts that together foretold his royalty, his priesthood, his death.

They were three gifts that together foretold how every life from then on would be different.  Every life.

 Let us pray:

Living God, how do we sum up in a few words all that this day means to us?  All we can do is gather together here in this quiet place and give you thanks for all that you are to us, all you have done for us, and all you are encouraging us yet to be.  As we think about the wise men who brought their prophetic gifts to set before you, we humbly bring our gifts to you as well.  Help us to use everything we have and everything we are to serve you. 

And so we have spoken and sung of how we warmly welcome your birth.  Now, we invite you to come home to live with us.  Not just today, but every day.  Not just this Christmas season, but every season.  Make us different than we have been.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen

A Christmas Story

Joanne thought the Grinch was sorely misunderstood.

It was freezing cold outside on Christmas Eve and the roads were a mess, full of snow and other last-minute shoppers driving like crazy people.  She finally found a parking spot at the mall.  “I might as well have parked at home” she muttered as she wound her scarf around her neck and halfway over her face.  She yanked on her stocking cap and mittens and opened the car door to a whoosh of stinging snow and wind.  Every step she took across the expanse of the huge parking lot, she was reminded of how much she really, genuinely disliked this time of year.  As she entered the store she saw the heads of other shoppers over the racks of clothes and sporting goods.  None of them looked very happy either.  She wondered if each one of them felt similar to the way she felt right now – a list of gifts to buy, no idea what to get, feeling the sickly nausea in the pit of their stomachs because they knew they had already spent more than they should on this holiday but still compelled to go out and spend some more.

She dreamed of running away at Christmas every year.  A beach vacation perhaps.  Maybe a quiet cottage in the woods?  Yes, a fireplace and a stack of books, maybe a tiny bit of Bailey’s in her hot cup of coffee – now that would be a holiday.  But this – she scanned the length of the store and the lines at the checkout – not this again.

Joanne was not usually a crabby person.  And every year she pretended to be cheerful about Christmas….no one knew how she really felt.  She wanted to be happy about it because of course her kids were excited and she didn’t want to ruin Christmas for them – even though now that they were teenagers they were so busy with activities and going over to friends’ houses she felt like she hardly saw them during their time off from school.  Their main interaction with her over the holidays was to be certain that she had their Christmas wish list – the precise make and model of hockey skates, the correct version of ipod or netbook or whatever that they wanted this year.

She and her husband had made sure their kids understood as they were growing up that Christmas wasn’t about the presents – that it was about something much more.  The kids knew about the stable and the manger and the baby born to bring wonder and joy.  But the baby Jesus hadn’t come to bring them sporting gear or new high-tech gadgets so he soon had lost the same kind of appeal that Santa held.

And Joanne, to keep things nice, to salvage some sort of fun in a season where she usually felt so strange and sad figured the one thing she could do was to at least get some good presents under the tree.  She might not be able to help her kids feel joy and wonder this time of year – when she struggled with it all herself, but she could help make it fun.

At least it was better for her kids than Joanne’s Christmases had been when she was growing up.  Her mom had definitely tried so hard to make things nice on Christmas Eve.  She got out the good china and the lovely cloth napkins.  She cooked wonderful foods and the whole house would smell like heaven.  She made sure there were presents under the tree and after dinner on Christmas Eve, Joanne and her sister would giggle in anticipation of what new things they would have to play with after the brightly-colored wrappings had been torn off.

And when she was very small, her father would make a big show of dressing up as Santa and handing out the presents to the girls.  She could still hear his resounding, “HO HO HO”  as he smiled at them and handed them their gifts.

But as the years went by, and the drinking got worse, he rarely would come downstairs to share in the meal that her mom had made, much less humor them by playing Santa.  He stayed up in the dark bedroom and mom would do her best to keep things cheerful, even though all of them could feel his sadness seeping down the stairs.

But the sadness was better than when it turned to anger – which it did more and more often as the years went by.  Joanne remembered one Christmas in particular when her father had spent the better part of the morning yelling at her mom, slamming doors, and raging – and then he just left.  They had kept dinner waiting until late – until finally mom and the girls sat down to the meal and forced down a few bites, opened the presents in silence and then went to bed.  When she had woken up in the morning, her dad was back.  Joanne remembered the strange feeling of relief and sadness at that.  Relief because she loved her dad.  Sadness because he was angry all the time and Joanne nor anyone else could help him.  And when he died a few years later in a car accident, she wondered what it meant that she felt a similar mixture of sadness and relief.

When Joanne got married she knew that her home would be different.  And it was.  Her husband was peaceful and kind and never drank.  Her children never had to wonder where their father was and they had enjoyed time together as a family.  So it was all these blessings of her life now, and many more, that made her feel even worse that she still just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.  She would have happily skipped right over it and landed somewhere in January.

Joanne had bought all the presents and placed them in her trunk.  She hurried back into the car and her cold fingers fumbled the key into the ignition.  She turned it and there was the sound of – well, nothing.  She tried again and still, nothing.  Her battery was dead.  She leaned her head on the steering wheel and sighed.   Why did this have to happen now? She mumbled, “Wonder and joy have taken a vacation.  They have been replaced by the feelings “crummy” and “irritated.”  She sat back up and stared out at the snow covering her hood and began to reach for her cell phone.

Suddenly she became aware that there was someone standing right outside her side window.  In the side mirror she could see the sleeve of an olive-colored coat and an orange glove.  She looked out and saw a man standing there.  He was big and had a rough, grayish beard and a gray stocking cap on his head.  He was smiling at her a big, cheerful smile, and held jumper cables in his gloved hands. 

She opened the door and he said in a gravelly voice – “I heard you try to start your car and it doesn’t sound like it is going so well.  Maybe I can help?”  Joanne nodded and he pulled his truck around in front of hers.  She opened her hood and he opened his and within a few minutes and a turn of the key, her car started again.

He pulled off the cables and called out “Merry Christmas” as he shut their hoods, climbed back into his truck and drove off.  Joanne had to smile.  Her own personal Santa?  An angel?  What a relief that he had come along at just the right time.  When does that ever happen? 

She thought about the man and wondered about him.  Did he have a family?  Did he have daughters?  She wondered what Christmas was like in their home?  How might it have been if she had had a father like that – one who had grown old and gray still loving her and caring for her even when she was grown up.  A father who understood that she still needed help sometimes, needed him sometimes?  A father who could see beyond a bottle in his hand and the sadness in his own heart?

She had decided a long time ago that it didn’t do much good to wonder about things like this.  What was done was done and she couldn’t change the past. Even if he were still alive, what could she possibly say or do to heal the hurt that had happened once upon a time?

She pulled up to the house and brought the presents inside.  The kids weren’t home –they had plans to be off skiing with friends all day.  They would be back in time to go to Christmas Eve service, though.  She and her husband wrapped the presents and got as much of the food ready for their Christmas Dinner as they could and stuck the turkey in the oven.  Before she knew it, the kids were home and laughing and shaking off their ski jackets and bustling to get ready for church. 

The family drove to church along the icy streets and found a parking spot.  They scurried in through the snowy air, hung up their coats and found a place to sit.  The service began and Joanne listened to the familiar scripture readings, she sang the familiar songs, she looked around at the pretty Christmas tree, the congregation, the pastors….and she prayed.  She prayed to feel something.  She prayed that something, anything might move her.  That something, anything, might help her feel the wonder and joy she longed to feel being there on that holy night.  Instead, she mostly felt annoyed.  She was annoyed when she noticed that on her favorite Christmas hymn, they wouldn’t even get to sing her favorite verse.  She was annoyed that her kids were whispering back and forth during the sermon, not even pretending to pay attention.  She was annoyed that she kept wondering how the turkey was doing in the oven at home and kept looking at her watch hoping the service would be over soon.

No, she sighed.  Christmas wonder and joy would not appear this year for her just as it had not for years and years.  She could still smile and go through the motions.  Maybe that was as good as it would get.  It was okay.

When the service was over, the family piled back in the car and drove home.  The turkey was done, they put the rest of the food on the table, they ate and laughed until they were full and then sat down to open presents.  When everything was open and the wrapping paper cleaned up, the kids went off to find places for their new things, and Joanne’s husband turned on a movie. 

Christmas Eve was nearly over.  Joanne walked slowly through the kitchen and ignored the dishes in the sink, the food still needing to be put away, went over to the back door with her coat in hand and slipped outside.

It wasn’t snowing anymore.  The night was simply clear and cold.  The stars always seemed brighter on cold nights like this.

She thought about everything that had happened that day.  The mall, the nice man with the jumper cables, the worship service, the meal together with her family. 

She dusted the snow off one of the stray lawn chairs still remaining in the yard and sat down.  She wouldn’t stay outside long in this cold – but there wasn’t any wind and she liked this quiet place.  She liked to see the soft light coming out of the windows of her pretty little house.  She liked to look at the drifts of snow and remember when the kids were small and they ran outside bundled up in their snowsuits and boots. 

And she wanted to sit there and listen, one more time, to give Christmas wonder and joy one more chance.  To make a space for God’s voice to whisper anything to her – just one more time on this holy night. 

She believed it could still happen.  She was glad about that.  Through everything – the good and bad, the memories that were hard, the lovely family she had been blessed with, she knew God was there in the midst of all of it.  She was sad she didn’t feel that presence more often, but still, she knew God was right there – closer than her breath.

And so it was that in that cold night air, Joanne found herself humming.  She recognized it was the tune to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”  She imagined it was stuck in her head since church.  Why hadn’t they had sung the verse she loved so much?  She sang it softly to herself… 

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heav’n.

No ear may hear his coming

But in this world of sin

Where meek souls will receive him

Still the dear Christ enters in.

 Still.  Joanne knew it was true.  Maybe it didn’t sound like angels singing on high.  Maybe it didn’t look like a star in the east lighting her way clearly and brightly. Maybe it wouldn’t take away every bad thing that had ever happened or fill her full of Christmas cheer, but that old hymn resonating in her mind and the silence surrounding her felt like an embrace.  An embrace from God who had comforted her in the scared sadness of her youth, continued to walk with her and provide for her in surprising ways in the peaceful, happy life she knew now, and would remain with her forever, no matter what was to come….On the days she could feel that presence and maybe even moreso on the days she couldn’t.

And in that moment Joanne knew she had it all.   Everything she needed and more – even a glimpse of wonder and joy on that Christmas night.  

“Merry Christmas,” she whispered to the stars, to the night air, and to God who loved her.  “Merry Christmas.” 

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.

Blue Christmas (a sermon for the Longest Night)

Luke 2:1-20

2 Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David;5 to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child.

6 And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds in the same country abiding in the field, and keeping watch by night over their flock. And an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people: for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this is the sign unto you: Ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

14 Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased. And it came to pass, when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

16 And they came with haste, and found both Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. And when they saw it, they made known concerning the saying which was spoken to them about this child.

18 And all that heard it wondered at the things which were spoken unto them by the shepherds.

19 But Mary treasured all these sayings, pondering them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, even as it was spoken unto them.

 

 

Shortly after my mom died, some friends bought a nice wooden and iron bench for our yard in memory of her. It sits under the mulberry tree behind our house and I like to go sit out there in the evening sometimes.  It is quiet place and a place I’ve set apart for remembering and for prayer.  Lots of prayer.

I think of this Blue Christmas or Longest Night service in that way.  It is a time and place set apart for prayer and for remembering and for anyone who is having a hard time finding joy during the Christmas season.  This time of year brings many emotions stirring to the surface and the things that set apart this time of year are not only the joyful things but the poignant things…deep memories, hopes, and longings.  Many are the concerns and cares for our present situations and the world in which we live.

So it is good to have this time together and this place to just be.  We sing some songs, we are sung to, we reflect, we pray, and ask for God’s healing balm on the hurting places.  For us.  For all.

Last Sunday we had our Sunday School Christmas pageant at Our Savior’s.  It’s such a truly good time of the year.  There’s nothing quite like hearing that old, old story of our Savior’s birth being told by the youngest voices of the church.

We had our rehearsals and got the costumes ready to go.  The littlest children who had all been sheep and cows and chickens in the play in years past now wanted to have lines – so we had five angels and seven shepherds and a few extra wise men – but that’s okay.  We had a new baby born in our congregation this year so we were excited we even had someone to play the role of the baby Jesus.

It was a perfect evening with lovely weather, the excited children all showed up on time.  As we stood out on the steps before we processed in I thought about how it was one of those moments I wouldn’t forget as I ran my gaze over the children in their costumes laughing and talking in the twilight and then glanced at the parents inside, poised with their cameras, ready to take pictures with their hearts swelling with pride at their little shepherd, their little wise man, their little angel.  The kids did their parts wonderfully, they sang “Away in A Manger” so sweetly, the play went smoothly.  We really couldn’t have asked for a better evening.

But that evening at the very same time our church was full of all that sweetness and goodness, if you had looked over near the altar, burning silently the whole time was a long line of candles lighted since earlier that morning in memory of other beautiful children, twenty of them, and their teachers who died last week in violence.

Such horrible things, such blessed things, the sum of our days are knit together with both.

Every week at the end of the children’s sermon I say a prayer for the children – that God would guide them and guard them and this last Sunday as I said those same words I always say, the words felt so heavy and strange.  I’m certain Pastors and parents had prayed for those dear children in Connecticut, too, and yet they spend this Christmas grieving unspeakable loss, not getting to watch their child act in the pageant or sing “Away in a Manger.”

It’s times like this when we are forced to remember, in case we ever forgot, that faith in God is not a magic charm that keeps away bad things.  Trust and belief in Christ is not some sort of guarantee that harm will not come.

The steering wheel can still slip, the playground equipment can yet malfunction, the storm clouds could gather, the medicine can stop keeping the illness at bay at any time.  We cannot manage the future or predict what will meet us as we step into each minute.

So what do we do?

We cherish the now.  We do not know what will come, but we give thanks for the blessings there are.  I take a note from Mary, the mother of Jesus here.  One of my favorite verses from the Christmas story I just read is where all these things were happening the night that Jesus was born and Mary was taking it all in.  It reads, “But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  The wisest and happiest people are the ones who notice their blessings, take time to treasure the moments while they are happening.

Pause over your coffee, go sit on the step when the breeze is just so, take the long way home, listen to your child’s breath – in and out, in and out – and whisper thanks to God.  These are the holiest moments there are, and when we really notice the loveliness of this world, that is greatest Hallelujah.

What else can we do?

We can trust that God is strong enough to hold the things we place in God’s hands.  It’s something my hometown pastor wrote to me when my mom was very sick and dying that brought me such comfort then and I know it will in my ministry and life for the rest of my days.  He wrote simply, “no matter what happens, Ruth, your mom is held in God’s hands.  And God’s hands are strong.”

Those simple words meant so much to me.  In her last months and days there was nothing we could control – it felt like everything – her life, our time together, our hopes for healing – all of it was just slipping right out of our grasp.  I knew I was losing her.  I knew the sadness of it all was going to be too much for me, I would disappear.  I always used to say that nothing was real until I told Mom about it – so then after she died, obviously, nothing would be real anymore.  The grief was crushing.  It filled me and then emptied me entirely.

But those few words her pastor wrote to me provided the one image of comfort during that time.  In life and in death, she was held safe in God’s hands forever.  She would never slip from his strong embrace.

And the old hymns ran through my brain all the time, their words of comfort and peace and assurance falling fresh on my ears as though I was really hearing them for the first time.        And while I knew that there was nothing I could do to get through that dark time and I knew that the sadness was going to be too much for me, I had a suspicion and a promise that it was not going to be too much for God.  God’s strong hands could hold me as well.

This is the message of hope that can carry us through this longest night and give us strength for seasons to come.  If it seems the illness has lasted too long and the healing will never come, remember you are held in God’s hands and God’s hands are strong.  When the worst thing has happened and so much is broken you are certain you will never be whole again, remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.  When the diagnosis is grim, when the way is scary, when the promises have not been kept, when it seem darkness is all that will ever be – remember you are held in God’s hands, and God’s hands are strong.

(December 2012)

In the Bleak Midwinter

Reflections on Shuffle-Play

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 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. Plus, even though I vowed to myself to keep things simple and worry-free this year, I’m already stressing out a little bit about upcoming Christmas services at church and cooking for extended family on Christmas Day. 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 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 a parishioner who is now on Hospice care.  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 Joe 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.

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him… give my heart.

 

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]