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Monday, December 31, 2012

A Snuggle with Jesus

Madonna and Child by
Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Advent is over and we sit solidly in the midst of Christmas. The above painting by Sassoferrato seems to sum it all up doesn't it? The peace on the faces of mother and child...the joy of this moment snuggled together...the hope of what will be...the love between mother and son. It is one of my favorite images of Mary and her precious son.

As all new mothers know, those serene mother-child images last about as long as it take to capture it in a photograph. All too soon it will be diaper changing, feeding time, unexplained crying fits and more. Peace is shattered by necessity...but it doesn't diminish the love, the joy and the hope between mother and child.

Yesterday, during our Children's Sermon, the gentleman teaching the kids said, "What holiday did we just celebrate?" The kids responded, "Christmas." Then he asked the next question that made me almost swoon with anxiety...."So what is the next holiday we will celebrate?"  What?? Seriously?? I haven't recovered from Christmas yet and already you want to talk about what is next? What happened to Christmas peace? 

Shattered by necessity I suppose....the necessity to move along with the calendar. As I calmed my weary body, I was reminded of the image of Madonna and Child - the call of necessity doesn't diminish the love, joy, hope...and yes, even the peace of life. 

2013 is knocking at our door. Lent is fast approaching, Easter is on the way, bible studies must be started, leadership development is vital to new committees and leaders; the 'to-do" list is endless. Your list may be different but it is no less demanding. So today, I take time to sit - as Madonna with child - and just settle in with Jesus for a moment of comfortable snuggling. Necessity is all around me but for this moment - I choose peace and that settles my anxiousness for the obligations that are coming as quickly as this new year. 

In those moments where I feel overwhelmed with necessity, I must remind myself that necessity doesn't diminish the peace, hope, love and joy of my life in Christ. Rather, as a servant to Christ, it is within the necessity that I find peace, hope, love and joy - for it is in the "doing" of my faith that I experience the peace, hope, love and joy of my faith. 

As we journey into a new year with new obligations and new expectations, let us remember to carry our peace, hope, love and joy of Christmas with us. Don't pack them away with the Christmas decorations but carry them with you into the work of 2013. Embrace the new year in such a way that the "necessities" are not burdens but instead are expressions of a iife lived peacefully, lovingly, joyfully and hopefully in Christ Jesus.

...And don't forget to take time each day for a comforting snuggle with Jesus! Take a moment from the call of necessity and sit with him, converse with him, be at peace with just might make that "to-do" list a lot more appealing. 

So long 2012 and Hello 2013....may you blossom forth in God's blessing upon all the world.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Light is Coming

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.
Psalm 113:3

I have never in my life been a morning person. I have always preferred to experience the sunset and enjoy the calm of evening rather than the expectant hustle of morning preparation. Perhaps it is an issue of aging, or perhaps I just have too much on my mind these days but I suddenly find sleep elusive and as a result, I am forced  to witness the birth of each new day. What a glorious gift it is...even if I am sometimes witnessing it through eyes that are blurry and sleep deprived.

I sit and stare out my window at darkness. I pray. I think. I sometimes write. I enjoy the sounds of my sleeping household. Ever so patiently and serenely the world begins to take shape around me. It begins with the first shadowy outlines of the trees outside my window. The sky begins to turn a lighter shade of black and the world stands in dark contrast. Light is coming. 

Another glance out the window and suddenly the trees are visible and the first splash of color spreads across the sky. Light is coming.

Hues of blue begin to deepen...clouds of red, purple, pink dot the horizon. Light is coming.

I have not yet seen the light. The sun has yet to peak above the edge of the earth but all of creation is now proclaiming its imminent arrival. Birds are singing, the colors deepen and signs of life appear...because light is coming.

From the rising of the sun to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised. The earth is in full praise mode today. I think I shall be also...because light is coming.

The Advent season is over but the Christmas season is at hand. On Christmas Eve we lit the Christ Candle and proclaimed that into the world has come a great light...Christ, our King. It is a bold proclamation to make given the deep darkness of the world around us. However, in the flames of that candle something else becomes visible: the outline of hope, the first shadows of peace, the initial colors of joy...all made possible because light is coming.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept: Statue located at Oklahoma City National Memorial

Jesus wept. It may be the shortest sentence in the bible, but I also find it one of the most powerful. What does it take to bring the Son of God to such emotion? How can it be that a Savior, who in just a few moments will bring a dead man back to life, would be in such a grievous state of sorrow?

We may not fully understand the meaning of Jesus’ tears as he stood, outside the grave of his friend Lazarus, weeping, but we can fully understand his emotional pain. The nation finds itself in mourning this week after the brutal and evil murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The question on everyone's lips - why? The debates rage over the cause and the cure. We argue over gun control, mental illness treatments, government restrictions, and the list goes on. Everyone has an opinion and an accusation. The argument that I am having the most trouble with, however, is that the government is to blame because it has kept God out of schools. The most reprehensible of comments came from the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer...

“Here’s the bottom line — God is not going to go where he is not wanted, We kicked God out of our public school system. I think God would say to us, hey, I would be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman…. Back when we had prayer, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments in schools, we did not need guns.”

Mr. Fischer is not the only one to make this argument to me; others are just as adamant that if prayer and the bible were taught in public schools then these horrific events would not be happening to our children. I am troubled by this argument for many reasons. 

First, "God is not going to go where he is not wanted, We kicked God out of our public school system." This argument requires us to believe that the government has the power to control the very presence of God. Let me assure you, there is no government on earth with that kind of power. 

Second, "I would be glad to protect your children but..." This argument requires us to believe in a God that punishes innocent babies by withdrawing from their presence. This stands in stark contrast to a risen Christ that assures us he will always be with us. It also indicates a God that is petty and vengeful and immature. This would be the kind of God that said,  “If you aren’t going to play my way I will take my toys and go home” rather than the God who says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deut. 31:6) 

Third, "you gotta invite me back into your world first." This argument removes all concept of Grace from God's character. The greatest tenet of grace is that it is unmerited and undeserved. As a United Methodist, I believe in what John Wesley described as "Prevenient Grace" - the grace that "comes before." Our belief is that God first loves us, before we even have any concept of that love or even the ability to return that love. When we are still sinners, still lost, still unbelievers, God loves us and is at work in and around us to draw us closer and bring us to a place of recognition and acceptance. To argue that God will protect our children only when God is "invited" into our lives is not fitting with the God of such grace.

Fourth, "Back when we had prayer, the Bible, and the Ten Commandments in schools, we did not need guns.” I'm not even sure I understand the "need for guns" statement but as for the context of the statement - It is just flat out not true that when we had prayer, the Bible and the Ten Commandments in school that we were any more protected from harm. There have always been bad things happening in the world and in our schools and those bad things did not all center around a need for guns.

Fifth, this argument that the schools are responsible for the religious instruction of our children is greatly problematic. Public schools are institutions meant for academic instruction. Religious instruction should be carried out by families and by churches. I personally am not offended by the removal of teacher led prayer in school. My daughter was once forced by a teacher to read a bible in class because the teacher was trying to convince her to reject our faith and embrace the faith of the teacher, a Jehovah's Witness. I don't want my child's teacher having that kind of religious influence. I am completely in agreement that our children are not learning what they need to learn about God, about faith and about morality, but the fault and failure doesn't lie in our teachers, our schools and our government - it lies in our family priorities and in our churches. It is not my government’s job to instill values in my children; it is mine. It is not the schools job to teach the bible to my children; it is mine and church's.

The events at Sandy Hook and other similar atrocities are indeed a wake up call for all of us as Christians. We have a responsibility in how the world knows and understands God. We are God’s witnesses and proclaimers in this world and we must be very careful of that responsibility. The world (and our children) needs to know that God is with us – it is the very proclamation of Christmas – Emmanuel (God with us). We cannot let them believe that God’s presence is fickle and unsure. We cannot leave them to understand that if they don’t please God that they will be subjected to a murder’s bullet. We must do better than that.

In the face of evil, Jesus weeps. Evil happens in this world and it comes in many forms but it does not come with enough power to block out the presence of God. God was in Sandy Hook Elementary school to comfort and welcome those babies into a new life where such pain and terror need not be known. To deny God's presence there is to deny they were loved and accepted by him…and that I will never do.

Our Christmas proclamation is that the birth of Jesus brought God into the world as never before. Our Easter proclamation is that God's presence is inseparable from ours - not even death can tear us apart. That is the lesson our children need to know - the lesson the world needs to know - especially as we weep.

If we want to make the world a safer place for our children then make religious instruction in your home a priority. Find a church that takes the religious instruction of children seriously. Make church and faith a vital part of your life and your family's life and invite their friends to join you. Mentor in the schools - go ask a guidance counselor or social worker who the loners are and volunteer to mentor them. We can sit and play blame all day but only with love and commitment will we turn the tide of evil and heal the wounds of brokenness. 

Matthew 28:19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Expecting Something?

 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, 
and for five months she remained in seclusion. 
She said, "This is what the Lord has done for me 
when he looked favorably on me and took away
 the disgrace I have endured among my people." 
Luke 1:24-25

My husband always says, "Beware of angels appearing and proclaiming 'Do not be afraid,' because when that happens someone ends up pregnant." While he certainly exaggerates, he does have a point when it comes to the birth narratives. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah all received that angelic "Do not be afraid" message to prepare them for the births of their sons but I can't help but notice someone is missing from that list...where was Elizabeth's angel?

Elizabeth and Zechariah were "getting on in years" according to the text. She had no doubt prayed and waited for the arrival of a child of her own and year after year was met with bitter disappointment. I have no doubt that Zechariah felt the same, it was a bitter reality in that day to be without an heir. They had anticipated a baby so long and yet none had come and years had trickled by. 

Mary and Joseph had no such expectation for a child, not yet anyway. So an angel visits each to break the news - a baby is on the way! Not just any baby, mind you, but God's son and they have been chosen to become his pressure there right? Without the angel's visit Mary would have been in grave danger. There would have been no doubt in anyone's mind that she had been unfaithful to Joseph and the penalty could have been death. However, the angel prepares Mary to understand what is happening to her body and it prepares Joseph to understand what is happening to his future wife. They are chosen - they are blessed. This is the message the angel must bring so that they would understand God breaking into their lives in such an incredible, and unexpected, way.

Zechariah receives his angel visit while alone in the temple, serving his priestly duties. He is then rendered mute so he cannot tell anyone what he heard or witnessed - not even his beloved Elizabeth. Where is her angel visit? Why is it that Mary, Joseph and Zechariah all get a warning, all get a preview of the exciting news while Elizabeth is left in the dark?

I smile every time I read her response, "This is what the Lord has done for me..." I hear it as a statement full of years of expectation. Mary and Joseph had no expectation of a baby to come so soon, they needed to be told so they could understand and manage the situation. Zechariah? I can't help but wonder if Zechariah had lost hope over the years. Perhaps he had stopped expecting joyful news as each month passed and Elizabeth's body reveled the disappointing truth - no baby - not yet. When the angel declares the coming birth Zechariah responds - how can this be? we are old. Yes, I think he had given up the expectation of a child and so the angel had to come and prepare him for the acceptance of the unexpected.

Elizabeth, however, gets no such heads up - no angelic warning - no preparation for such an incredible event. Why? "This is what the Lord has done for me..." she says. In that statement I hear her smile - you know the smile - the kind that comes only when what you knew would happen finally happens and you get to say, "I told you so." I can't help but wonder if the reason Elizabeth is the only one that doesn't get an angelic visit is because Elizabeth is the only one that was expecting God to do this very kind of thing. I don't think Elizabeth had ever stopped believing that God would give her a child...I think she expected it...she anticipated it. She didn't need an angel to say, "Surprise! You are with child" because every single month she watched her body for the signs of what she trusted would some day be...a baby. Patiently, expectantly, faithfully...Elizabeth watched and waiting for what she knew God would some day bring her.

In this season of Advent we are encouraged to watch and wait expectantly for what God is about to do. We re-live and remember the birth stories and how God broke into this world in such an amazing fashion and yet at the same time we are called to watch and wait for re-entry...the day when Jesus returns and God's Kingdom is fulfilled. Everyone wants to look for signs of this next big event - just the other day a woman stopped me to ask me if I had noticed the sun was burning more intensely than every before. No, I replied I had not noticed and so she warned me it was a sign of the Lord's returning. People are looking for signs - 12/12/12  or 12/21/12 or national conflicts or river's running red or you name it - folks are surveying the world around them and wondering - when will it come and what will be the sign that warns us so we will know to prepare?

I picture Elizabeth, standing in her doorway, holding her swollen belly with that knowing smile on her face...she didn't need a sign. She didn't need a warning. She didn't need a messenger. She had expected all along for God to show up - she had never once stopped expecting it she just stood ready to receive it.

Stand ready to receive the gift that was promised: Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. Live each moment as if you expect these gifts to already be within you and around you. Then you won't need to worry about the coming of Jesus - for he will already be present.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anticipation Is Making Me Wait

Perhaps I'm dating myself but just maybe you too can remember this commercial....Anticipation is making me wait. It occurs to me that this marketing ploy would never work in today's society. Back in the day there was still a belief that good things were worth waiting for. It was not uncommon for people to save their money to make a big purchase - taking those months and years to anticipate the day when the amount would be enough to buy that new car, new house, new boat. Our society today is one driven by immediacy - we want it all and we want it now! Why agonize to save money when we have credit cards? Why wait for anything for that matter? I find myself irritated with my computer if the website I want doesn't load in the blink of an eye. I'm ready to throw my T.V. away because it takes approximately 2.9 seconds to change the channel and I find that infuriatingly too long.

Perhaps that is why we have such a hard time wrapping our brains around the concept of Advent. In the four weeks leading up to Christmas we are being called to do nothing but watch and prepare our hearts for what is to come. That is a difficult task for a society that hates waiting for anything. In stores we are decorating for Christmas in October. In churches we jump right into Christmas songs and skip the Advent songs. We don't want to wait - we want baby Jesus NOW.

I believe the Advent season is meant to force us to slow down - to anticipate what is on the stop and smell the Poinsettias if you will. If we rush headlong into Christmas we have missed the great story of anticipation. We will not have thought about the work God did to prepare the world for the birth of this child Jesus. We will not have taken a moment to look up on a starry night and wonder - if a new star appeared would I have even noticed? We will not have taken the time to ask ourselves if we would have obeyed God as willingly and completely as Joseph and Mary? Would we have been supportive of the couple or gossiped about them around the village? We will not have taken the time to think about what God went though to choose, wrap, and deliver this precious gift that is coming our way.

Anticipation is making me wait. Let us spend Advent savoring the wait of Christ's coming. Yes, he has arrived once but the retelling of the story, the remembrance of it, the reliving of it, is vitally important to us today because it reminds us that we are, in a sense, still waiting for Jesus. We are still waiting for his return in which time we believe all will be made right. We wait for the time of complete and sure peace when we can beat our swords into plowshares for war will be no more. We wait for the time when God's love is made complete and expressed through every life, in every place. We wait for the time when joy will be the theme of every day and all our hopes for God to reign will be realized.

Advent welcomes us into the waiting place of anticipation where we can get giddy with the thoughts of what great things are to come. It reminds me of a beautiful Advent song: People Look East.  The first verse says, 
"People, look east. 
The time is near of the crowning of the year.  
Make your house fair as you are able, trim the hearth and set the table. 
People, look east and sing today: Love, the Guest, is on the way."

Let us pray: "Holy Anticipation, that breathtaking space in-between what has been, what is, what is-to-come. Where winter dreams reveal secret longings and winded angels announce the coming of Love. You draw us to the edge of Advent possibility like the song of angels drawing shepherds - eyes wide and breath held - waiting, watching. Come, settle into our living for awhile and do not let us settle for too little. Amen."

(Prayer by Pamela Dawkins in Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent)