Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.  

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.

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]

Even If

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the daily exercise to write a reflection based on a song from that morning’s run)

There are two pivotal words in the Bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

The words are “even if.”

If you grew up in the church you likely have known this Bible story most of your life. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego have had their story told over and over – there’s even a Veggie Tales cartoon version of what they went through.

These three Jewish young men refuse to bow down to a huge gold statue that the king has put in place to show off his power. If you read the full story from Daniel, it is almost comical how he demands all these officials come to the dedication of this statue and he commands that whenever people hear the sound of all these musical instruments: the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon (which was a triangular-shaped stringed instrument), harp and drum – they were to fall down on their knees and worship the big ol’ golden statue.

So all the instruments play and the people are falling to their knees to worship the statue when they hear them, but the king finds out that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego do not.

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were not always known by these names. If you looked a little bit earlier in the book of Daniel, you would find that their names first were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

These young men had been brought to work in the king’s court and taught the language and literature of the Chaldeans. These three young men were being forced to give up their own heritage and even religious beliefs.  Their original Jewish names had meanings: Hananiah meant “Who is like God” and Mishael meant, “God is gracious”, and Azariah meant, “God keeps him.” 

But now when they were brought into service in the king’s court, their new names had references to Babylonian gods – such as Nego — Abednego means “servant of Nego.” Now, not only are these young men expected to change their Jewish names but now there is another attempt to compel these immigrants to change their religion and heritage as they are expected to bow down and worship the golden statue of the Emperor, and thus to submit to his authority instead of the God of Israel.

They won’t do it.

And the king is so angry. That’s how leaders who are full of themselves (hmmm…sounds familiar) get when people aren’t doing what they want – they throw tantrums. He says, “if you don’t worship you’ll immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?”

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego say simply, “We don’t need to defend ourselves to you, O king. Our God is able to deliver us out of the fire – but even if he doesn’t, we will never serve your golden statue you have set up.”

Even if.

Our God is able to rescue us but even if he doesn’t, we will serve no other god.

Even if.

I was listening to a story told by the lead singer of the Christian band, Mercy Me, Bart Millard. He was talking about how one of his children has a chronic illness and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age two. His family has learned how to handle this challenge and that child is now 13 so Bart estimates that his son has had over 37,000  shots in his life – because pretty much any time he eats, he needs a shot, too. And it will likely always be this way.

He was telling about one particular day when the reality of his son’s chronic illness was just getting him down, and he felt weighed down by his worries for his son. He and his son and wife had just left the doctor’s office and they ran into a woman from church. She asked what they were up to and he told her they had just been to the doctor to get the 6-month check-up on their boy’s diabetes and the woman said, “I’m going to pray for healing for him – and I’ll have my church do that, too.”

He said his gut reaction wasn’t gratitude, but anger. He thought to himself, “Like that never occurred to me – to pray for healing for my son. I pray every day for that. I know God can heal him, but God hasn’t.  And that is okay.” He talked about how his family and his son have learned how to thrive in spite of the illness and they believe that somehow, some way God will work through that illness to bless the lives of others through their son.  But then he shook his head and admitted it doesn’t feel okay every day.

He talked about how he wants every day to be like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and be able to say “I know God is able to heal – but even if God doesn’t, I will serve no other god.” Sometimes he is able to do that with his whole heart as he sings praise music in front of churches and stadiums, but sometimes he isn’t able to do that – and then he leans on Jesus and just has to trust that Jesus’ strength will get him through.

It was a beautiful witness as he talked about a song he wrote called “Even If”.

I pray that God gives us that “even if” kind of faith that helps us remember that God isn’t like a genie to grant our wishes. Rather, God is with us in the fire and we can trust that. Even if and when the worst happens. Even if healing doesn’t come. Even if we mess up bad. Even if, and no matter what – our hope is in Christ alone.

I felt that when my mother was dying in a hospital in Waco, Texas. I knew I was losing her and my heart was breaking – but when the nurses needed to change her bedding or get her cleaned up, I would go for a walk on the path around the outside of the hospital. I would walk and cry and walk some more. I didn’t have any words to pray, I have no idea how I wrote any sermons during that time, but out of nowhere in the midst of the despair, old hymn lyrics would come to mind.

“When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It was mysterious and comforting and haunting. God kept singing to me in the midst of the fire of that loss, never letting the reassuring songs leave my mind even as I suffered, even as I knew I had to let go.

Even if. Even if and when the worst happens, God is with you in the fire.

Even If

By Mercy Me

They say sometimes you win some
Sometimes you lose some
And right now, right now I’m losing bad
I’ve stood on this stage night after night
Reminding the broken it’ll be alright
But right now, oh right now I just can’t

It’s easy to sing
When there’s nothing to bring me down
But what will I say
When I’m held to the flame
Like I am right now

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

They say it only takes a little faith
To move a mountain
Well good thing
A little faith is all I have, right now
But God, when You choose
To leave mountains unmovable
Oh give me the strength to be able to sing
It is well with my soul

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, and I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

You’ve been faithful, You’ve been good
All of my days
Jesus, I will cling to You
Come what may
‘Cause I know You’re able
I know You can

I know You’re able and I know You can
Save through the fire with Your mighty hand
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone
I know the sorrow, I know the hurt
Would all go away if You’d just say the word
But even if You don’t
My hope is You alone

It is well with my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

Finish Line

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the thing where I write a reflection each day on a song from that morning’s run)

My husband’s parents died in 2007 – his father, Butch, in January and his mother, Dottie, in August.  Our eldest, Owen, was just one year old then and our baby, Jesse, was born in June of that year.  The last time we saw Dottie was at Jesse’s baptism on August 5th.

It was a warm afternoon when Chad got a frantic call from his sister that their mother had died suddenly.  In the days to come it was surmised that her death had occurred from an accidental overdose.  There had been some leftover medication in the house from when Butch was on hospice care and apparently Dottie had told a neighbor she wasn’t feeling well and was going to take something to help her sleep. A tiny bit of liquid morphine and she just never woke up again.  One tiny sip of an incorrect dosage and she left behind her children and a whole bunch of grandchildren who had planned on a lot more time with her.  She never had to suffer as she slipped peacefully into death, but she left behind a family to suffer – a family who still just can’t quite believe she’s gone.  Forever wondering why she was so careless, or if there was something we missed?  Was she sadder than we thought after Butch’s death?  Was there a part of her that wanted to sleep eternally or was it truly just a horrible error?  Then, finally realizing that every question will always remain unanswered.

We went down to New Mexico to help clean out their house and Chad and his brothers and sister hobbled around the house in shock making piles and going through papers while I tried to chase Owen and hush Jesse.  I led the funeral service and wanted to do such a good job but I didn’t.  I didn’t know the perfect words to say for a loss like that.  I know better what to say for strangers than for my own family.  I have found this to be true again and again over the years.  I am unable to blur the lines in my roles.  The same thing happened when Butch was dying and Dottie called to say he wanted to have communion one last time and could I bring it to him?  We were coming down to see them in a few days.  I was happy if I could do something for him but I felt sick at the thought of how in the world to do this?  How could I knit together words to pray a prayer out loud for my beloved’s father in his last hours?  I felt like I just barely knew how to be a daughter-in-law – I had no idea how to be pastor to him, too.  Butch was family, real family to me – I loved him.  That was the problem.  I knew I would weep sharing the sacrament with him.  I knew I couldn’t put on my ‘pastor face’ for him and be any sort of calm and comforting presence because I would just keep thinking about how sad I was for me and for Chad and for our boys and just everyone that we wouldn’t have him around anymore.  It would be too real, too close, too deep, too much.  I called the hospice chaplain at the facility where he was hospitalized and asked her to bring him the sacrament.  I told Dottie that I was worried we wouldn’t get there in time.  She said she understood.

My pattern of wanting someone else to be the pastor when it comes to my family continued.  Right before my mother had her final heart surgery just weeks before her death, I spotted a hospital chaplain in the hallway and dragged him into her room in ICU.  There was a good chance mom might not survive the surgery. I demanded he pray for her right then.  I bowed my head while hot tears flowed down my face and onto her bedspread.

All the prayers I have said by hundreds of hospital beds but I could not pray aloud for her.  I knew the silent prayers I kept lobbing toward heaven were incessant, but to speak those words aloud, if she were to hear them – I would have been undone.  Not that I was very composed as it was – but I knew I was only capable of being her daughter, not her pastor.

When my children were baptized I put the water on their heads but had pastor friends do the rest of the service.  I only said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” and it was all I could do to squeak those words out.

I can’t even think about what their confirmation day will be like.

Their weddings?  Oh dear God.

It’s not that I think pastors shouldn’t cry.  Ask anyone in any of the congregations I have served and they’ll tell you I am a crier.  I’ve cried with widows on the anniversaries of their husbands’ deaths.  Tears usually slip out at every baptism and it isn’t strange for my voice to be choked when I’m blessing the confirmation students at the altar rail along with their parents on confirmation day.  In fourteen years as a pastor I have openly wept three times during sermons – during my final sermon at both my first two calls and when I preached at the nursing home on what would have been my mother’s 80th birthday.

I’m not ashamed of any of those tears.  I’m grateful to have work that moves me deeply.  But even so – there are parts of my life when I cannot be the pastor because I need a pastor.  There are times I need someone else to be saying the prayers and administering the sacraments.  There are times I just need to hear someone else speaking the holy and precious words of God to my grief, my joy, my life.

I remember in seminary when I worked at a hospital in the Twin Cities and a priest who worked there as well was recalling his mother’s funeral.  He had done the entire thing himself.  Back then I thought to myself how brave and wonderful it was to be able to do such a thing.  How great that he could do that final thing for his mother.  However, now I see a different perspective.  I feel sad for him that he couldn’t just be a son grieving his mother.  I feel angry for him that probably every significant moment in his family’s life together he couldn’t just be there to enjoy it but rather he probably was expected to say the prayer, do the wedding, speak at the wake, give the last rites.

It’s a blessing to be with people during the most significant moments of their lives – it’s one of the best parts about being a pastor – but we can’t do that for ourselves or for the people we love the most.  We cheat ourselves out of feeling everything that must be felt and being fully the many roles God gives us to fulfill.  I’m so thankful at my parents’ funerals I simply sat down and listened to the preacher speak.  And when my children get married, I want to just be the mother of the groom, slipping the pastor a nice honorarium.

Finish Line

by Train

I thought I knew it all
I’ve been through the highs, said all my goodbyes
Learned to run before I learned to crawl
It’s not worth fighting for if one of us is sure
And one of us is dying, trying to find loves cure

I have waited all my life to paint these cities red
Thoughts I’ve always had here are stuck inside my head
It’s not worth waiting for if one of us wants more
And one of us is dying, trying to find love’s door

When we learn how to fly
We forget to how walk
When we learn how to sing
We don’t wanna hear each other talk

Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line

And you, you really thought you knew
Everything to do
With holding onto me and holding on
This time is making me slip right through your hands
And now you don’t understand
Trying to find love all yourself

When we learn how to fly,
We forget to how walk
When we learn how to sing
We don’t wanna hear each other talk
When we know what we want
We forget what we need
When you find who you are
You forget about me

Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line, ah
Here we are at the finish line

Ah, ah, ah

Nothin’ on Me

Reflections on Shuffle-Play (the thing where I write a reflection inspired by a song from that morning’s run)

I do not have high standards when it comes to movies. Basically, I’m content if there is a happy ending. However, I was watching a made-for-TV movie the other day that was so unremarkable I simply couldn’t finish it. There was one scene that has stuck with me, though: the sister of the main character was discontent with many things in her life and tended to blame the people around her for her dissatisfaction. She repeatedly grew angry at her husband for the big brown patches on their lawn, “Why can’t you ever water the grass?!” She kept yelling at him for not taking care of the lawn until one day she decided to go out and water the grass herself. She smiled as she did it – a smile of great satisfaction – as she realized that she didn’t have to wait for anyone to make her life better. She could do it herself. Her whole demeanor changed as she stood there with the hose in her hand, watching the water cascade over the grass. The viewer could see her embracing her power right then and there – and sure enough, before I changed the channel she had already begun to make other changes in her life. All it took was a shift in her perspective. Instead of putting her energy into blaming others or her circumstances, she put her energy into making it better.

I’ve thought of that so often in the last few days. How can I water my own grass, concern myself with the solution rather than the problem? That shift in perspective might seem slight but in reality, it makes all the difference in the world. I can see everything as a problem I have, or I can see everything as a solution I am finding – and I am never alone as I look for that solution. I think this may be one of the greatest lessons life teaches us. A long time ago, I used to feel like so many problems were insurmountable. If I didn’t know what to do immediately in any given situation, all was lost, and I was surely a failure. Despair set in easily back then. It took me a very long time to realize that it was okay to not know the answers, and it was great to ask for help.

Are you upset with a situation and finding yourself blaming others or outside forces? Is there something you could do today to address the problem directly? Can you water your own grass?

Nothin’ on Me

by Shawn Colvin

Well I don’t tell jokes
And I don’t take notes
You been sayin’
There ain’t much hope
You got nothin’ on me
I got friends uptown
And they don’t talk down
They be keepin’ me safe and sound
We got somethin’ to be
So in case you hadn’t noticed
I’m alright
Not like it was before
Things used to be so hopeless
But not tonight
Tonight I’m walkin’ out that door
I’m not gonna cry
When wavin’ goodbye
And I know this time
You got nothin’ on me
Well it ain’t that tough
Just more of the usual stuff
One heartache is more than enough
There ain’t nothing to see
Nothing
I got friends uptown
And they still come ’round
They be keepin’ me safe and sound
We got somethin’ to be
So don’t you try to save me
With your advice
Or turn me into something else
Cause I’m not crazy
And you’re not nice
Baby if you do
Keep it to yourself
I’m not gonna cry
And I’m wavin’ goodbye
And I know this time
You got nothin’ on me.
(No nothin’ on me)