Archives for December 2017

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Eighteen – Third Sunday of Advent

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Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, NRSV

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because theLord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of theLord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
 the devastations of many generations.

For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

This is a spectacular picture of a world made right, isn’t it? And as hard as it is for me to believe in this reality at this juncture in our national and international history, I am hanging onto it with all my might.

We serve a God who loves justice — which means a God who wants us to be right with one another as well as with him. And we have a long way to go to get there, don’t we? But . . . if we, the church, can see ourselves as God dreams of us . . . as oaks of righteousness, planted in this world by the hand of God, then hope remains.

Can we let go of the prejudices, the misconceptions, the misinterpretations of both scripture and life that have plagued us so much in recent years? Can we look at Jesus, this one whose birth we celebrate at the end of the month, and see him for who he truly was? A humble, righteous man, THE Man, THE Human, who models for us what being an oak of righteousness looks like.

Read those stories he used as teaching devices. Observe what he did as he walked around that occupied land into which he was born. Notice whom he singles out for attention, where he uses his healing power. Jesus surprises, over and over again. Can we — the church, the bride of Christ — can we surprise people by our graciousness, our inclusion, our insistence upon justice for all, our ability to care for ‘the least of these?’ That is my prayer, now, during Advent, and as we continue to move through the year ahead. Will you join me?

Lord Jesus, we so often miss you, don’t we? We look at the rules and the rituals and the doctrines and the dogmas we’ve loaded on ourselves over the centuries . . . and we miss you. Give us eyes to see you, truly see YOU. And then empower us to live as you live, to care as you cared, to hope as you hoped. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Seventeen

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photo by Matt Erickson, Monday night, December 11, 2017, from West Beach, Santa Barbara, looking over the wharf toward the fire in Carpinteria

Habakkuk 3:13-19, NRSV

You came forth to save your people,
to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
laying it bare from foundation to roof. Selah
You pierced with their own arrows the head of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter us,
gloating as if ready to devour the poor who were in hiding.
You trampled the sea with your horses,
churning the mighty waters.

I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Here in Santa Barbara, we are living through a time when we ‘tremble within’ a great deal. This latest fire is the biggest one I’ve ever seen in my long life in this desert of a state. We’ve had some scary moments. Our home is not in danger, but the one that used to be ours (that we still own and is now leased by our son and his family) remains in the evacuation zone as I write this. Our loved ones are safe, living in their trailer over the hill (and commuting to work, as needed — every school district within 35 miles has cancelled classes for the rest of the year). But so many others are threatened. So these words from dear old Habakkuk hearten me in the midst of it. The smoke is thick enough to do harm to our lungs, the ashy residue covers our back patio and drifts down continuously. And yet . .  though the smoke rise, the ashes fall and the flames snap and terrorize, I will rejoice in the Lord.

Help me to rejoice in you, even in the hardest moments of this life I live. Thank you for your presence, for small signs of beauty, even now, for the encouragement of friends and the bravery of fire fighters. Even here, on the edge of the apocalypse, your presence shines out around us. Thank you!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers: Day Sixteen

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Psalm 126, NRSV

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

This psalm is one of the loveliest pieces of writing I have ever read in my life. Look at some of those phrases — “like those who dream,” “mouth filled with laughter,” “may those who sow in tears, reap with tongues of joy.” And that image of the heartbroken carrying only seeds and then returning with shouts of joy and sheaves from the harvest? Gorgeous!

This is our promise, my friends. This is it. All the tears we have shed, do shed and will ever shed, will be transformed into beauty. Into shouts of joy. Into laughter! We get to peek into that joy from time to time, right here where we live now. But then? Oh, yes! It will happen in full technicolor! 

Thank you for technicolor promises, God. Thank you for your ongoing work of redemption, in which even our tears are transformed into shards of laughter and joy. Thank you for the ways in which that happens in the here-and-now. And thank you for the promise of a whole lot more of it to come in the hereafter. Yea and amen!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Fifteen

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Philippians 3:7-11, The Message

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash—along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ. Yes, all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.

I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it.

You do know that Paul doesn’t actually say, ‘dog dung’ here, don’t you? Nope. He uses a flat out swear word. Yes, he does. But we have sanitized it — to our loss, friends. To our loss. There are some things in life for which there is no more suitable word than a swear word! And this is a prime example of exactly that. Everything of value in this world is pretty much worthless in comparison to the riches that are ours because of Jesus. Now that does not mean that the things of this world are worthless. Far from it, truth be told. They are worth so very much, that Jesus came walking right into the middle of them, to redeem and save them. But in comparative terms? Well, yeah. If you pile up all the beauty, wonder, achievement and success of the human race next to the Savior? Pretty much, it’s dog dung. (Stronger word allowed!)

Thank you for the reality of Paul’s language, Lord. For the depth of his insight and for the wonder of who you are. You came to us, you love this place we call home and yet . . . you are so much more. So.Much.More. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Fourteen

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Luke 1:5-17, The Message

During the rule of Herod, King of Judea, there was a priest assigned service in the regiment of Abijah. His name was Zachariah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron. Her name was Elizabeth. Together they lived honorably before God, careful in keeping to the ways of the commandments and enjoying a clear conscience before God. But they were childless because Elizabeth could never conceive, and now they were quite old.

It so happened that as Zachariah was carrying out his priestly duties before God, working the shift assigned to his regiment, it came his one turn in life to enter the sanctuary of God and burn incense. The congregation was gathered and praying outside the Temple at the hour of the incense offering. Unannounced, an angel of God appeared just to the right of the altar of incense. Zachariah was paralyzed in fear.

But the angel reassured him, “Don’t fear, Zachariah. Your prayer has been heard. Elizabeth, your wife, will bear a son by you. You are to name him John. You’re going to leap like a gazelle for joy, and not only you—many will delight in his birth. He’ll achieve great stature with God.

“He’ll drink neither wine nor beer. He’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he leaves his mother’s womb. He will turn many sons and daughters of Israel back to their God. He will herald God’s arrival in the style and strength of Elijah, soften the hearts of parents to children, and kindle devout understanding among hardened skeptics—he’ll get the people ready for God.”

I love Zachariah. He gives me hope! He was old, he was faithful, he was also uncertain, frightened and eventually, silenced! But this beautiful promise? This assurance of answered prayer? It changes him in profound ways. And it changes the world in profound ways, too. John, we’re told, was filled with the Spirit from the get-go, a dedicated servant of God from infancy. Another Elijah. Do you get that? That right there is the prophetic fulfillment the people of God had been waiting for — Elijah was to come again, to announce the coming of the Messiah, the anointed one, the promised one, the deliverer. Only Elijah didn’t look like Elijah, did he? Nope. He looked like John. And the Messiah? He didn’t look like what they expected, either.

But then, he never does.

Lord, thank you for the many ways in which you surprise us! Thank you for being the kind of Messiah who uses love as your only weapon and forgiveness as your only shield. Thank you for calling us to newness of life in the kingdom of God, that kingdom of upside-downness and wonderful, unexpected strangeness. Give us eyes to see, Lord. Eyes to see.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Thirteen

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Isaiah 4:2-6, the Message

And that’s when God’s Branch will sprout green and lush. The produce of the country will give Israel’s survivors something to be proud of again. Oh, they’ll hold their heads high! Everyone left behind in Zion, all the discards and rejects in Jerusalem, will be reclassified as “holy”—alive and therefore precious. God will give Zion’s women a good bath. He’ll scrub the bloodstained city of its violence and brutality, purge the place with a firestorm of judgment.

Then God will bring back the ancient pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and mark Mount Zion and everyone in it with his glorious presence, his immense, protective presence, shade from the burning sun and shelter from the driving rain.

When these words were penned, the author had no thought of Jesus. Or what we have come to call, “the second coming.” Others, looking back at them in light of Jesus, have given them that weight. They are surely prophetic, but most likely meant to describe something that would happen within the more near future at the time they were put down on papyrus.

But here’s the thing about prophets and prophecy — they don’t always know the import of their own message. Today, we read this and think, “Yes! Jesus did come like a green sprout. And Jesus will come back again someday and all the messes of the past (including those we are making right this very minute!) will be behind us!” But the prophet who said them and then wrote them down? Not so much. And there are prophets still speaking into our century, our culture. Do we have ears to hear them? Walter Brueggeman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, Ann Voskamp, and a whole host of others. They’re out there, speaking God’s truth. Can we listen? Will we hear?

Give us ears to hear, O Lord. Ears to hear the truth of your powerful, life-changing love for this beat-up place called planet earth. Help us spot your prophets and help us to listen well.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twelve

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Psalm 27, NRSV

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
my heart shall not fear;
though war rise up against me,
yet I will be confident.

One thing I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
to live in the house of theLord
all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of theLord,
and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will set me high on a rock.

Now my head is lifted up
above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face,Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.

Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of theLord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for theLord!

In 2002, I was forced to take an 8-month sabbatical from my job as an associate pastor. The forcing did not come from anyone but me — my own body and spirit were simply exhausted. I was anemic, frazzled, and wondered where I was headed. So I took time away from work — with the blessing and encouragement of my senior pastor and my congregation — and spent some concentrated time building my physical, emotional and spiritual strength. It turned out to be a gigantic blessings in disguise. For those months, I spent every morning in a chair in my living room, working through the morning prayer of A Celtic Daily Prayer. And it began, every single day, with these words from Psalm 27. “One thing I asked of the Lord, this is what I seek . . .”

YES.

ONE THING. The most important thing of all — intentional time in God’s presence. When I returned to work, it was to begin one of the hardest and most wonderful seasons of my ministry life: my boss left to take a denominational position, we began a huge building project that had been on the books for 10 years, we hired an unknown interim pastor who turned out to be the perfect person for the job, we lost almost every other staff member over the next 24 months, but replaced them with people who are still serving the church, and we eventually dedicated our gorgeous new sanctuary and office complex and hired a senior pastor who served us well for eleven years. THESE WORDS helped prepare me to be the ‘glue’ during that season of upheaval, the one who stayed through all the changes. And we did see, “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”

Thank you, Lord God, for your faithfulness over time. For your commitment to our good. For your presence, which brings with it healing power, inspiration and encouragement and the peace and strength needed to make it through all of life’s curve balls. Thank you. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Eleven, Second Sunday of Advent

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Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSV

Comfort, O comfort my people,  says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of theLord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Handel’s setting of this beautiful passages is one of my favorite pieces of music. Ever. And also one of the very first choral pieces I learned as a high school student. I was blessed to go to a public high school that wasn’t the least bit afraid of singing sacred music — after all, it’s an important part of every student’s musical education. Without the church, there would be little choral music worth singing. And these words?? Glory, that’s what. A willing admission that human beings are transitory, our lives but a whisper on the earth. And yet . . . our Shepherding God loves us so! There is tenderness here. And faithfulness. And GLORY. Thanks be to God.

Lord, give me ears to hear these words in a fresh way this Advent season. Thank you for them, for their inclusion in our holy book. And thank you most of all for the powerful truth of them. Thank  you for being our shepherd, our good, good shepherd. We surely need one!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Ten

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Mark 11:27-33, The Message

Then when they were back in Jerusalem once again, as they were walking through the Temple, the high priests, religion scholars, and leaders came up and demanded, “Show us your credentials. Who authorized you to speak and act like this?”

Jesus responded, “First let me ask you a question. Answer my question and then I’ll present my credentials. About the baptism of John—who authorized it: heaven or humans? Tell me.”

They were on the spot, and knew it. They pulled back into a huddle and whispered, “If we say ‘heaven,’ he’ll ask us why we didn’t believe John; if we say ‘humans,’ we’ll be up against it with the people because they all hold John up as a prophet.” They decided to concede that round to Jesus. “We don’t know,” they said.

Jesus replied, “Then I won’t answer your question either.”

It’s just a small story, but how I love it! And Peterson nails this translation: “They decided to concede that round to Jesus.” Oh, yeah, they did! Whenever I read an example of Jesus’s almost crafty intelligence, I marvel. He knew how to wriggle out of tight situations. Really well. But then . . . as the days of Holy Week march by, we see him relinquishing that skill, just turning it over and letting it go. He drops the quick comeback, the diverting word. And he steps calmly and graciously into the ugly future that awaits him. I wonder when he came to the full realization that his ministry life would end with his death. We can’t know that — it’s one of the mysteries of the Incarnation — that grand gift that we celebrate during Advent. How much did Jesus know and when did he know it? I choose to believe that his understanding came in slices, like it happens for us. He got some of the picture. . . then a little bit more, then another piece, etc. Eventually, he began to see the entire puzzle, something we are only able to do in part, I think. And yet, he kept choosing to move toward that inevitable end. Amazing. AMAZING.

Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us, for choosing to be one of us, for accepting the limits of human flesh, of human comprehension. You know us. You know us from the inside out and that is the greatest gift — and the greatest mystery of all. You know us. Thank you!

 

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Nine

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Acts 11:19-26, TLB

Meanwhile, the believers who fled from Jerusalem during the persecution after Stephen’s death traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, scattering the Good News, but only to Jews. However, some of the believers who went to Antioch from Cyprus and Cyrene also gave their message about the Lord Jesus to some Greeks. And the Lord honored this effort so that large numbers of these Gentiles became believers.

When the church at Jerusalem heard what had happened, they sent Barnabas to Antioch to help the new converts. When he arrived and saw the wonderful things God was doing, he was filled with excitement and joy, and encouraged the believers to stay close to the Lord, whatever the cost. Barnabas was a kindly person, full of the Holy Spirit and strong in faith. As a result, large numbers of people were added to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went on to Tarsus to hunt for Paul. When he found him, he brought him back to Antioch; and both of them stayed there for a full year teaching the many new converts. (It was there at Antioch that the believers were first called “Christians.”)

Those kids up there in the picture? They’re the ones we’ve been ‘sent to help.’ We teach Confirmation every Sunday morning to a room full of 18 middle school students. It can get pretty chaotic in that space, I’ll tell you. But you know what? These kids fill me with hope. They are kind, friendly, committed to learning more about Jesus, sincerely wanting to grow in their faith. And those kids — and you and me and everyone we know who follows after Jesus today — are direct descendants of those Greeks that the early church reached out to in Antioch. There are others who trace their roots to Thomas, who went to India, the tradition tells us. And maybe others descended from that Ethiopian eunuch who went back to continental Africa a newly baptized believer in Jesus. That yeast-like spreading of the Good News has brought us to today, where the church in the 2/3 world is larger than the church in the northern hemisphere! AMAZING. And we can say a hearty thank-you to Barnabas, among so many others, who carried the gospel of Jesus with them and then passed it along to others. May we do the same!

Lord help me to be a Barnabas, a person who overflows with your good news. Help me to be brave and faithful and open to the promptings of your Holy Spirit. Build your church through us, Lord, even as you began it through those early disciples. Thank you, thank you.