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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Week 4: The Love of Advent

"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.   


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Week 3: The Joy of Advent

“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.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Week 2: The Peace of Advent

“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
-Mother Teresa

As fear is replaced, peace follows hope—a second glimmer of light, reminding us that one flame is good, but two partnered together burn increasingly brighter, illuminating more than one could ever illumine alone.

Peace requires humility.

Psalm 72:4, “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor” (NIV).

At first glance, this passage of Scripture may sound more like the language of war than that of peace.  No one wants to be crushed… says the oppressor.  Yes.  Exactly.  I have good news: the solution is simple.  Do not be the oppressor, and no one will be crushed—by you, by the God to whom this Psalm appealed, by anyone.  When oppression ceases, true peace ensues.  If you happen to find yourself counted among the powerful, in the way the world defines power, this actually might not be the good news for which you were hoping.  Peace and power do not play well together.

Striving toward peace in the midst of oppression can look messy… can be messy.  Peace is hard to come by, and the temptation to separate and divide is nothing new.  The marginalized… the oppressed… they have always waited in eager expectation for the Messiah.  At advent, this narrative may best take the shape of shepherds—second (or third or fourth or last) class citizens by anyone’s standards leading up to the time of Christ, stereotypically labeled indiscriminately as sinners, exiled to the desert to perform their ‘worthless’ work, out of sight… out of mind… 

It’s not difficult to ignore the cries of the oppressed when they are so disgusting to us that they become less than human in our sight.  And yet, the very Messiah they anticipated came not only to liberate but to stand in solidarity.

“I’m a shepherd, too,” Jesus would one day proclaim, “and as it turns out, I’m a good one…” (John 10:11, paraphrase and interpretation mine). 

If anyone has ever had the ‘right’ to pull rank, it was Jesus, but instead the King of all of creation stoops down low enough to save the very least of all—to make the broken not only his priority but his very identity.  It sounds ugly, because it is.  Power is sexy.  Relinquishing power for the sake of people who don’t have it may be extraordinary, but it doesn’t come with any accolades.  I’d like to say this is beautiful, but it’s actually the kind of thing that leads to death.  And it’s not just about Jesus.  It’s about us, as well.

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?”

This humility is the intersection of hope and peace, and if we legitimately want to see peace come to Earth, we have to be willing to relinquish our ‘right’ to be exalted as the chosen people, the ones who matter most, the rule makers and power wielders and… well… oppressors. 

Romans 15:5-9, 13 “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy… May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (NIV).

That just about covers everybody.  As it turns out, it looks like Jesus knew how to belong to the people, and the people surely belonged to him.  May we all strive for that kind of equalization at advent, ushering peace into our lives and this world, thinking for more than just a moment about what it is to empower others by giving up our own privilege and comfort for the sake of the world.

We can bring war unilaterally, but peace is found in community.  It only takes one to break relationship, but it takes everyone involved to restore it.  Perhaps this should begin with those who hold legitimate power.

Do this.  Say yes.  If you want to be like Jesus, accept the fact that this means identifying with the oppressed.  Do not misunderstand or try to find a way around this.  Let’s stop pretending that token servanthood or sacrifices which cost us nothing are the same as solidarity.

Jesus was a shepherd.

Be a shepherd.

Jesus is peace.

Be peace.

Psalm 115:14-15, “May the Lord cause you to flourish, both you and your children.  May you be blessed by the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (NIV).

As God’s people, we should count the cost.  It’s not hard to find people who need peace.  Light one candle and then hold it out to someone whose candle also needs a burning flame.  It won’t even diminish your own light.  Decide that the cost of peace is worth it.


*This is a recycled piece from last year, so the lectionary won't line up, but I think the reflections are still worthwhile.*

Saturday, December 9, 2017

How to React when it’s Really not Cancer

It’s Advent, y’all… that time of year when I have come to realize I love waiting for everything except test results.  After two years of anxiety and panic attacks, sprinkled with CT scan radiation and a little bit of insanity; what I would like is a definitive note that reads, “This is definitely not cancer, it never has been, it never will be, thanks for playing along, as a parting gift you will never, ever die.” 

Here’s what I got instead: “Left lower lobe nodule has demonstrated stability for 24 months and is likely a benign abnormality.” 

Close enough.  I can live with that.  Literally.  Hopefully for a very long time.

If you’re just tuning in to my life, you might want to start with the post I made here: Perpetual Crisis Averted, about 16 months ago.  I should have read this post earlier in the week, because the mounting stress of having to go through the final follow-up scan left me unable to remember that there were some high points during this journey.  I’m glad I read it today, though.  I also want to direct you to another post I reference, found here: If I Die First, because you should know that I still think it’s an excellent idea to give your spouse very detailed instructions about what to do if you die first.  I might, however, make some tweaks, given the opportunity (In fact, I would have to, because my first choice for my children’s stepmother is no longer available…  I’m not taking applications…  Don’t send applications!).

In all seriousness, I do want to say something meaningful about these two years of suffering (and that’s exactly what they’ve been, no hyperbole).  I don’t think they were necessary.  What I mean by this is that I don’t think God wanted this to happen, nor do I think God needed this to happen in order to bring about some greater good.  What I do think is that God can use everything… even crap like this… and God has done so, as I have listened to God’s persuasive voice in my life, even when I couldn’t listen to much of anything at all.

I am not glad that I went through this!  I am glad that I am a different person than I was at the onset.  I think there might have been better ways to get there, but whatever…  I’m there.  This is not to be confused with, “I’ve arrived.” 

No, friends, it’s more like, “I am where I am,” and where I am is good… for today…

I am more brave.  (I know it’s really “braver,” but it’s one of those days when I feel like I can write what I want…)

I am willing to take more risks.  (Disclaimer: greater risk usually equals greater reward, although it can also equal greater disaster.) 

I am less concerned about what other people think of me and more concerned about other people, in general.

I fully recognize that if I have a goal or a dream, I had better start chasing it right now, because even if I have inherited the genetic make-up of the women on my dad’s side of the family—a hundred years will never be enough.

I started using the hashtag #LessFearIn2016 in an attempt to do scary stuff, but I also started using it, because I thought I might not have too many more days to practice less fear.  I think I’ll modify it now to #LessFearForever, because none of us have enough time to be afraid.

And with all of that said, if you think I was a hypocrite, this week… you’re 100% right!  Because this week, I was terrified!  Will I forget I’m OK and have a panic attack now and then?  Probably.  Will I struggle to remember that I can let go of this now, because all is well?  Almost assuredly.  But another thing this experience gave me was a community of people who kept listening and kept praying and kept being present to me when I couldn’t live into everything I wanted to be in any given moment.  Gosh, I’m thankful for that, but next time let’s decide to be friends over ice cream and Disney and good books.  No more of this death and disaster drama, OK?

For me, this is a great note on which to end, as we transition from a week steeped in hope to one filled with peace.  Sorry that it’s kind of personal for this blog, but I know many of the readers here have been wondering if there would ever be an end to this chapter.  I don’t usually love endings, but this one is good.

Oh, the daily office…  How about a doxology from Jude 24-25:

“To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.