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Saturday, December 24, 2016

When Hanukkah Falls on Christmas Eve

It’s sunset, friends.  These words, spoken only on the first day of Hanukkah, probably mean more to me this year than ever:

"Praised are you Adonai our God, who rules the universe, granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this day."

I am choked up at the implications, because there were times during the past 365 days when I wasn’t sure we would reach this day.  And yet… here we are…

And so, this reflection is short.  As the night goes on, I will stop to celebrate the birth of Jesus, and it is not lost on me... the irony of this year when Hanukkah and Christmas Eve collide.  May we have peace.  May we be here—truly present.  May we recognize the things that bring us together and the God who holds us close.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What to Do When Your Friend Marries a Jewish Guy

Or…  Reflections for Hanukkah, Part 1

Let’s get this out of the way right at the very beginning.  I have a confession to make.  Our family has been celebrating Hanukkah for years.  The first year, my kids were little and just really excited that they were going to be getting gifts eight days in a row!  We didn’t own a menorah at the time, and our dining room table turned into something of a mess of mismatched candles and random packages.  When they told their friends about our Hanukkah celebration, things got tricky.  My husband was on staff at a traditional, Christian church.  The community flipped out just a little bit.  What on earth was wrong with ‘these people’?  You know… us.  The extended family flipped out just a little bit.  Were we still Christians?  Did we still believe in Jesus?  Was Christmas going to be ruined?  Should there be an intervention of some sort?  After that, I asked the kids to keep it kind of quiet in ensuing years.  We became closet celebrators of Hanukkah.  And our celebrations grew… and grew… and grew…

By last year; we had a legitimate menorah, we had learned some Hanukkah songs, and our gifts had become more intentional.  We are still struggling to understand the dreidal.

Last spring, my very dear friend who goes all the way back to high school (middle school for her, because she’s a few years younger) married an awesome guy who happens to be Jewish.  The Christian community still gets a little bit upset about stuff like this.  At best, people are usually confused.  But I have a different take on it.  I was all like, “Please, oh please, oh please, may I help you build the huppah?”  And I did.  And I loved it.  They had one of the most beautiful weddings ever.  They love each other a lot.  They make each other happy.  And they gave us enough yamakas for our entire family. 

Earlier today, I dropped off candles for their menorah.  Because… obviously… the most likely person to have an extra box of menorah candles is the Christian pastor friend, right?  I also dropped off a hijab pin, with safety pins dangling from it, because I might as well mix as many metaphors and spread as much love around as possible.  Oh friends… we have so much more in common than we know…

But back to Hanukkah, itself, for just a moment.  It’s the festival of lights.  It’s the celebration of the rededication of the temple.  If you’re confused about where our Old Testament Scriptures come from, let’s clear it up.  These are Jewish holy writings.  And if you want to be like Jesus, let’s clear something else up while we’re at it.  Jesus was Jewish!
Goodness gracious!  Christians can celebrate Hanukkah right out in the open!

Phew…  I’m so relieved…

PS  Hanukah starts on Christmas Eve, this year.  How great is that?

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Love: Reflections for Advent, Week 4

"We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God´s compassionate love for others."
-St. Clare of Assisi

One candle for hope… another for peace… a third for joy… and then, as is so often the case, a fourth candle shines brightly, bringing this advent season full circle… back to the beginning, back to the foundation of all things… love.

God has always had so much hope for humanity—so much faith that we might join in the work of redemption.  In a letter, Paul describes the gospel of God as:

“The gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures…” (Romans 1:2, NIV).

There is great risk involved, because God enters into covenant with a people who may not uphold their end of the deal.  God asks impossible things of God’s people.  We don’t need to look much further than, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV), to know this is true. 

Impossible… and yet it happens…

Love, on the whole, is so impossible, beginning with the very way we define it.  We don’t have enough words.

I love my kids… and pizza… and Walt Disney World… and my husband… and books… and a good bubble bath… 

I love coffee… and my friends… and drinking coffee with my friends…

I love God.  God is love.  So, I love love.

Do you remember that part when you were in middle school and love was confusing, but you knew it would get easier when you grew up?  Yeah… it doesn’t actually work that way.

I have a great appreciation for the Greek language, which at least gives us something more to work with.

I agape and storge my kids.  As they get older, I philia them, as well.  I eros my husband.  I philia my friends.  The more I consider the definitions available for all of these kinds of love, the more I wonder if we can truly love things, at all.

I think I may need to alter my thinking, because the truth is I probably only like chocolate and the ocean and glitter.  Wow.  Mind blown.

But which love is God?

The temptation is to raise our hands, shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!  God is agape!”

God is unconditional love.  God is a love of well wishing and benevolence and even a love that remains constant when unrequited.  Yes.  Certainly.  But perhaps we do not give God enough credit for being love in all its various forms.

In the advent story, Jesus, coming as the Messiah in the form of a vulnerable baby, might best embody what it is to love—what it is to be love.  God, as Jesus, is the ultimate example of what it means to love without control, from the first breath.  Newborn babies can’t do anything for themselves!  They are completely dependent on the mercy, grace, and love of others.  Completely.  If Mary says no…  If Joseph says no… If the innkeeper or, later, the magi say no…  we have a completely different outcome, friends.      

Love is risky.

Because it’s just like God to do things this way.  God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world?  Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”

Matthew 1:22-24, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…” (NIV).

Sigh of relief…

May we also wake up.

Do this.  Say yes.  Join the circle of lights shining brightly, bringing close to the world the promised redemption that is so near we might reach out and touch it, if only we will commit to being a part of the salvation narrative. 

John 13:35, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (NIV).

Jesus was vulnerable.

Be vulnerable.

Jesus is love.

Be love.

As God’s people, this is the greatest thing to which we are called.  It’s not hard to find people who need love.  They are all around us.  By completing the advent cycle, bringing to fruition the love that is so desperately sought by all, we may envelop the hurting world with the light and life that comes as we await the arrival of Christ just a little longer.   


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Joy: Reflections for Advent, Week 3

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.”
-St. Francis

First one candle… then another… then a third… Soon we find ourselves realizing that light breaks into darkness with the same kind of intensity that joy breaks into suffering—slowly, steadily, increasing in measure as time passes.  Certainly, we are well aware of the contrast between the two.  Light even serves as a means for producing the shadows that can sometimes overwhelm.  And yet, we are also strangely warmed and comforted.

I am not of the opinion that pain must precede joy, but I know that all too often, it does.

Psalm 63:1, “You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (NIV).

The holiday season is often consumed by stress, conflict, and depression.  If you happen to be among the luckiest people in the world, this may come mildly in the form of Great Uncle Arthur who won’t share the remote control or turn down the volume when carolers arrive at the doorstep or Grandma Kay who kisses everyone who walks into the room, even first time family guests.  But that’s not really what I mean.  All around the globe, and even in our backyards, there are people who suffer endlessly, because Christmas is coming and the waiting through Advent that should give way to joy isn’t going to end that way for them.  Of course, this is not what we want.  We do not want to live without water.  We do not want our neighbors to live without water.  None of us can live without water!

I’d like to take a moment to use some creative license with the word parched.  Let’s define it as burnt, gasping, or desperate…

I feel relatively confident that Zechariah and Elizabeth were parched. 

I think the general consensus among many Christian traditions is to look at their story and exclaim that God will eventually give us everything we ever hoped for if we will just be faithful.  I think we assume that Zechariah and Elizabeth endured infertility into their old age, just waiting for God to come through, as if this kind of pain was God’s plan all along.  Somehow, though, I don’t think we account for the very real possibility that Elizabeth cried month after month through her late teenage years… 20s… 30s… 40s…  (Gosh, I don’t know, how old were they?) and that Zechariah felt the pain just as deeply.  So when an angel appears to him to tell him about the coming baby, it’s really no wonder he is so stunned he utters words he will later regret and has to shut his mouth for months!  But that’s joy, right?  I mean, we don’t even have to get into the rest of the story where their only child is beheaded, do we?  Is this what they were waiting for?  Could we get a glass of water for Zechariah and Elizabeth, please?

I feel relatively confident that Joseph was parched.

Being ‘betrothed’ in biblical times was not quite the same thing as being in a somewhat monogamous relationship in the 21st century.  Joseph was essentially married to this very young girl, and although they had not consummated that marriage, breaking up was going to require a divorce!  But she’s pregnant?  This is probably pretty close to the greatest scandal ever, and even though Joseph was kind enough to keep it quiet in public, I would venture to guess he hit the nails just a little bit harder in the workshop that night.  Is this what he was waiting for?  Could we get a glass of water for Joseph, please?

The stories of the righteous old man, Simeon, and the lonely and elderly widow, Anna, always baffle me just a bit.  They essentially held on to witness the coming of Jesus, just so they could die!

Joy is peculiar.

At no point do I look at the advent story and think to myself, “God brought all of this pain into the lives of people in order to bring great joy.”  I legitimately do not believe this is the way it works.  I think God mourned with Zechariah and Elizabeth, and I think God was able to absorb every punch Joseph threw.  I think God held Simeon and Anna in God’s very own arms, decade after decade, as they continued to hope. 

God does not cause suffering, God does not desire suffering.  God does not need suffering in order to create joy.  But because we live in the world, in the way in which it exists, suffering is a very real and present occurrence.

These words might best be our prayer:               

Isaiah 35: 3-4, 6, 10, “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts,Be strong, do not fear; your God will come…’  Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert… everlasting joy will crown their heads.  Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (NIV).

This is what God does.  God comes.  And God also uses us to bring comfort and joy to the hurting community around us. 

Because it’s just like God to do things this way.  God calls to God’s people, “Who will participate in the redemption of the world?  Who will join me in bringing the fulfillment of the covenant?”

We can provide water to those who are parched. 

Do this.  Say yes.  Light another flame and then stand between the shadows and the suffering.  Draw them near.  In his short life, I think John really ‘got it’ when it came to joy: 

John 3:29-30, “That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less”(NIV).

Jesus was greater.

Be less.

Jesus is joy.

Be joy.

As God’s people, we can create safe places.  It’s not hard to find people who need joy.  Another candle will increase our ability to envelop the sorrow and hold the suffering close.  Sometimes being present is the most important thing we can do.