The Truest Advent

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I sit and watch the light play across the beautiful angles of her face. Even at 95, those cheekbones are breathtaking. She is tired today, battling a mild infection, with little to no appetite and even less energy. The sharp angle of the winter sun is unexpectedly flattering as it gently flickers through the window, and I draw a sharp breath as those too-familiar tears begin to form behind my eyelids. 

“Oh, Mama! I love you so. Please, Lord, let her go to sleep and wake up in the New Creation. Enough, okay? Enough.”

But who really knows how much is enough? I don’t have any special insights, only my own bedraggled emotions and growing fatigue. To me, it feels like it is time. Time to be released from this ‘body of dust,’ time to rest from the struggle, time to breathe in and never breathe out again.

We did not go out to lunch today; we barely made it from the dining room to her own sweet space, with its lounge chair in the corner, by the window. “My arms!” she cried softly as we walked. “They ache.”

Truth be told, everything aches. Every cell in her body.

As she slept in that chair, I moved my hand slightly, the one that she was clasping with both of hers. She roused a bit, turning to look in my direction.

“Oh, Mama! Thank you for being such a good, good mother,” I cried.

She didn’t understand me, so I said it again, more slowly, more loudly. She smiled slightly and said a simple, “Thank you.” Somehow her half-sleepy state made the usual questioning unnecessary. There were no confused looks, no puzzled frowns. None of this response: “I’m your mother?? Really??” 

None today. None at all.

One week ago, that’s all I heard. I came home shaking my head at my husband. “I don’t know how much more of this repetition I can navigate! We spent our entire 90 minutes together today asking and attempting to answer the same 5-6 questions — over and over and over again. Oh, Lord, give me patience!”

He and I were getting ready to leave town the next morning, our annual anniversary getaway to parts north. We both needed it — time and space to savor an ocean view, good food prepared by someone else, and quiet time together — no expectations, no obligations, no schedule. And it was good. Very, very good.

They called me from the dementia unit as we were driving home yesterday. “She has a UTI and a low-grade fever. Is it all right with you if we put her on antibiotics?” 

Yes, it was all right with me. UTIs make dementia much worse and increase confusion and disorientation. She doesn’t need any escalation of those symptoms and neither do I. But this time around, the infection plus the added medication led to extreme exhaustion — one more sign of decline, diminishment. 

And yet, as painful as it is to watch that happen, this time I will admit that my primary response is relief and gratitude. She is heading in one direction only; and today’s exhaustion underlined that truth for me. My mother is very old. She is very frail. She is extraordinarily confused.

She is also beautiful, grateful, loves people (even when she hasn’t a clue who they are), sings the old songs and hymns with a higher degree of accuracy than her illness might lead you to expect, and generally enjoys her life. It is not up to me when that life will end on this side of the mysterious veil that separates us from the eternal.

There are, however, some decisions that are up to me. When and how to treat illness, for one. I think I know what I will and will not allow — mom and I discussed it all, long before dementia took over — but until illness or accident happens, I suppose it’s all pretty hypothetical.

So, in addition to those prayers for patience, I also pray for wisdom, grace, kindness and insight as my mother moves ever closer to the end of her long and remarkable life. I will miss her presence in my life more than I can adequately put into words, more than language will allow.

 

Then again, I have been missing her for a very long time.

“Oh for grace to trust him more!”

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twenty-One

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Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
2 Samuel 7:23-29
John 3:31-26

2 Samuel 7:23-29

Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods? And you established your people Israel for yourself to be your people forever; and you, O Lord, became their God. And now, O Lord God, as for the word that you have spoken concerning your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as you have promised. Thus your name will be magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts is God over Israel’; and the house of your servant David will be established before you. For you, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, ‘I will build you a house’; therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you. And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant; now therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you; for you, O Lord God, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever.”

Today’s passage is the closing part of a conversation that David the King had with God, through God’s chosen intermediary, the prophet Nathan. I encourage you to read the whole chapter. David wanted to build the temple and God said, ‘No.’ This is David’s response to that ‘no.’

Even though David’s character was far from spotless, there was much in him to admire, even to emulate. And this lovely passage illustrates that point well. It’s part of prayerful answer to God’s clear ‘no,’ and there isn’t one whisper of complaint, is there? God said ‘no’ to the temple, but God also said a resounding ‘yes’ to the ‘house’ — the lineage of David. And it is that very lineage that we celebrate one week from tomorrow. The Ultimate King comes through the line of David, fulfilling ancient prophecies and hopes. David could not dream of what that fulfillment would look like, but he chose to believe it anyhow.

Help me, Lord, to believe your word, even when I cannot imagine what that word might look like in the future that is unknown to me. Help me to lean into trust, to remember my history with you, even as David remembered the history of his people and his own personal journey with you. Help me to find center in those memories, those stories, that truth.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Nineteen

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Psalm 80:1-7
2 Samuel 7:1-17
Galatians 3:23-29

Galatians 3:23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Ah, yes! One of the sweetest passages of all! Paul does such amazing work in these few verses, honing down the gospel truth to this powerful statement. The law was necessary, Paul says — it served as a guard for us, a ‘prison’ of sorts, putting parameters around our behavior. But the law was imperfect. Until the Perfect came and lived among us.

The coming of Jesus brings a special kind of freedom to those who choose to pay attention. “In Christ Jesus, you ARE ALL children of God through faith.” There it is, plain and simple.

But never easy.

Taking in this truth is a lifelong process, learning to believe that we are now ‘clothed with Christ,’ that we are all one, that we belong. Do you catch the cataclysmic shift in thinking/behavior/worldview/attitude/disposition/rule of life that such thinking requires? 

So as I read these words today, in the second half of the second decade of the twenty-first century, I still have to ask the Spirit of God to help me make the transition from the discipline/guardedness of the Law to the remarkable freedom/unity/equality found by living the life of faith in Christ Jesus. 

This is revolutionary stuff, my friends. And if we believe it, if we live it, everything changes. Everything. We can no longer tolerate abusive and disparaging language about any group — any race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, religious persuasion. If those of us who believe in Christ are one, then every other person on this planet has the potential to be one with us in Him. Period. There is no room for racism/sexism/classism/xenophobia/snobbery/prejudice of any kind. None.

I don’t think we’re there yet. Do you? But I have hope! And I count on the power of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of God’s people to help us move toward this picture painted by Paul’s words in the glorious epistle to the Galatians!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Fourteen

This is my scheduled day to write for SheLoves Magazine, and the theme for the month of December is, “Pause.” So you can start today’s reflection (which is in a very different format than usual, and is longer!) right here and then follow the link to finish it over there. Thanks for being flexible.

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Tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy. All of the assigned readings for the day reflect that spirit, that ineffable whatever-it-is, that deep-down sense that all is right with the world, even when things may not be objectively right in any way.

I can’t think of a better Sunday to take a . . . pause. A deep breath in and a deep breath out; a re-setting of the old internal clock/barometer/gut-sense/compass; a deliberate step away from the noise, the hustle and bustle of shopping, decorating, baking, planning.

So I offer you today a few small Advent gifts — a brief reflection on rejoicing, in response to the scripture readings for the day; a list of appropriate hymns and songs for this week of the liturgical year; and a few suggestions for small intentions or actions that you might incorporate into your day. All of it is designed to help us learn more about living in joy, even when the craziness of the season, or the frustrations and worries of our everyday life, conspire to push us in the opposite direction.

The readings for this day include a beautiful song from the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10), Mary’s Song from the gospel of Luke (1:46b-55), some encouraging words on how to live well as a Jesus-follower in James (5:7-10), and the powerful words of Jesus when questioned by an imprisoned John the Baptist in the gospel of Matthew (11:2-11).

 

Please join us over at SheLoves to read the reflection, see the song list and try out one of the practices suggested. Just click here.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Thirteen

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Psalm 146:5-10
Ruth 4:13-17
2 Peter 3:11-18

2 Peter 3:11-18

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. You therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, beware that you are not carried away with the error of the lawless and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.

Seems like it might be a good idea about now to reflect on a scripture that centers on that ‘third’ Advent I mentioned earlier in this series: the end of days, when Christ will come in triumph.

Peter describes it graphically as a time of cleansing by fire, the creation of a new heaven and a new earth — and I LOVE this phrase: “A place where righteousness is at home.” Isn’t that we all long for, truly? It’s one reason I titled this year’s Advent Journey, ‘Longing for Home.’ I do believe there is a deep yearning within us all for a place where righteousness ‘is at home.’ 

So Peter asks the right question here, I think. If that’s what we’re waiting for, how shall we live in the meantime? And I like his answer. (I especially like his comments on Paul, don’t you?? Love this tiny insight into their personal relationship and Peter’s ‘take’ on some of Paul’s more convoluted writing!) 

First of all, we are to live lives of holiness and godliness — and apparently, doing so might actually hasten that great day for which we wait. That’s a remarkable thing to say, isn’t it? And then he goes on to a more detailed description of the kind of people we should seek to be: 

    at peace
   without spot or blemish
   regarding the ‘patience of our Lord as our salvation’ (that’s a new idea!)
   not carried away with the ‘error of the lawless’
   not losing our stability
   growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ

That’s what I call a list! I don’t begin to understand all of what this list means, much less how we are to accomplish it, but I like it. A lot. These are all qualities I think any serious follower-after-Jesus wants to see grow within them. Which one stands out to you?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Twelve

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Psalm 146:5-10
Ruth 1:6-18
2 Peter 3:1-10

Ruth 1:6-18

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

Oh my goodness, how I love these words! I love this story. I love these characters. There are lots of reasons for my abiding love for the story of Ruth — there is the obvious one — my mother’s name and my middle name match the title of this book. It’s a story about women, and those are few and far between, especially in the Old Testament. It’s a story about family commitment on many levels, Naomi and Ruth to one another, Boaz to Ruth and Ruth to Boaz. And it’s a story with a beautiful, fulfilling ending after a painful beginning.

Most of all, however, I love this story because I believe it’s given to us as a picture of God’s immense loyalty and love for his human family. And the character of God is female — who knew?? The character traits exhibited by Ruth throughout this tale are ones that the Old Testament frequently uses to describe the character of God. Chesed,  faithfulness/loving-kindness/loyalty. Ruth has that in spades. 

And these particular words are famous anywhere the Bible is read. I suppose they are most often used in wedding ceremonies, which is a little bit odd, when you come to think about it. After all, they were spoken by one woman to another, by one generation to another, by one homeless wayfarer to another. There is nothing traditionally romantic about them at all. They are fierce words, aren’t they? They show grit, determination, conviction and commitment. Maybe that’s why they show up in weddings, eh? The whole idea of commitment over a lifetime is in exceedingly short supply these days. Maybe it’s time to dust them off and use them in as many settings as we can think of! What do you think?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Ten

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Psalm 21
Isaiah 41:14-20
Romans 15:14-21

Isaiah 41:14-20

Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
you insect Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Now, I will make of you a threshing sledge,
sharp, new, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
and you shall make the hills like chaff.
You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away,
and the tempest shall scatter them.
Then you shall rejoice in the Lord;
in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

When the poor and needy seek water,
and there is none,
and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

I gotta say, the pickins for today are SLIM. At least at first read-through. But then I read through the prophet one more time and was immediately struck by all the water imagery in the second verse up there. Look at that magnificent word picture, will you?

When the ‘poor and needy’ need water, where must they go to find it? To God alone, that’s where. And though many of us are far from poor economically, we are all poor in spirit, poor in resources, poor in faith, poor in trust. And God promises not to forsake us in our thirstiness. Water will appear in unexpected places — on the ‘bare heights,’ in the ‘midst of valleys,’ in the wilderness, there will be pools, and in the dry land, springs will appear. God alone will put in trees, a wide variety of shade and even fruit bearing green things for our comfort, enjoyment, nourishment. The needs of our senses will be met, as well as our spirits. These trees are even sweet-smelling! 

And God will do this as a sign — a sign to the wider world of God’s activity in that world, of God’s provision for your deepest and most basic needs. A sign of hope.

I could use a little of that just now. What about you?

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Nine

Today’s post is a little bit different. I offered the prayer of consecration and supplication in  yesterday’s worship service and am posting that prayer here. It comes out of the same set of readings we looked at yesterday and seemed an appropriate way to launch into this third week of Advent. We will be back on schedule with our daily readings/reflections tomorrow.

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An Advent Prayer

2nd Sunday, December 4, 2016

Montecito Covenant Church

It’s the Sunday of peace, Lord, and we gather now around your table
to remember how you chose to come to us,
as one of us,
to be our peace.

Yes, it is your death we remember
as we gather round today.
When we come to this table, we remember your sacrifice on our behalf,
and we thank you, with our whole hearts.

But on this particular Sunday of the year,
we also remember your life among us,
as one of us, and we remember it from that very first moment
when your mother heard 
a special word from your Father,
from our Father.
And oh, we thank you for that, too, with our whole hearts.

We also must admit that some of these hearts of ours
feel far from peaceful this morning, Lord.

Some of us are grieving the loss of a person we love very much;
some of us feel utterly exhausted — by school, by life, by illness;
some of us are worried about people we love; some of us are frightened about
something we ourselves are facing into right now.

In this moment of silence, we lift those concerns before you now.

— SILENCE —

And now, as we gaze on this bread,
as we consider this cup,
will you help us to remember
that this ordinary, torn-up loaf
and this common purple liquid
become something more, 
for us and in us, on this day.

We offer these simple things to you now,
and ask you to bless them, to set them apart,
and to make them uniquely beneficial to us, in body and in spirit.
May they become emblems of your love,
and strong, clear symbols of your Peace.

Even as Gabriel spoke to Mary those strange and wonderful words of invitation,
may you speak to us through
this time at the table.
Help us to hear you,
help us to be open to whatever invitation you are extending to us,
both individually and communally,
and help us to say a resounding,
“YES — let it be to us according to your word!”

And then, Lord, as we gather our belongings and turn to head out the back door into the sunlight and the friendly chatter of the patio, will you help us to remember that there are “Elizabeths” all around us today — male, female, young, old — all sorts of folks who have in some way or another experienced the reality that for you, “nothing is impossible.”

Give us eyes to see and ears to hear
the miracle stories that are all around us.
No, not all of those stories have what we might label a ‘happy ending’ —
Mary’s story wasn’t exactly all sweetness and light, was it?

But all of us who have walked with you for a little while or for a lifetime —
all of us know
that your faithfulness can be trusted,
that your goodness is unassailable,
that your peace is ever and always available,
even when the tough stuff happens.

Help us to live those truths, those stories, out loud, Lord.
Help us to be encouragers in all our interactions with one another
and within the larger communities
where we live and work.
Help us, dear Lord,

to seek peace and to live it.
For Jesus’ sake.

Amen.

 

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Eight

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2nd Sunday of Advent Readings:
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Romans 15:4-13

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,

“Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles,
    and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says,

“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
    and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says,

“The root of Jesse shall come,
    the one who rises to rule the Gentiles;
in him the Gentiles shall hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I love it when Paul pulls the threads together like this! He digs into the scriptures he knows and loves and he builds a beautiful argument for the work God has given him to do: evangelize the Gentiles. Read that first line over a few times and sit with it for a bit.

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

Exactly. Our scripture is written down for our instruction and encouragement so that we might have HOPE. These words of ours are never meant to be used as weapons, threat, or excuse. They are designed for our good — to teach us, to encourage us and to inculcate hope within us. And Paul takes those words — which he had previously used as weapons and threat and excuse for his inexcusable and hateful behavior — and because of his encounter with the risen Christ, he learns to handle them with loving care, prayerful attention and a listening heart.

And voila! He discovers the truth that he longs for and that he now lives: the Gentiles are included in God’s mercy and plan. Think about that for a minute. The same one who was hell-bent on destroying all the followers of The Way, the same one who stood collecting the coats of those who were stoning Stephen to death, the same one now sees something entirely different in the scriptures of his youth. 

As we grow in our faith and in our understanding of the heart of God, we, too, will discover things we never knew were there. Maybe even things that are exactly the opposite of what we had always supposed to be there. Maybe even things that will turn the world upside down.

Which is exactly what happened to our friend and mentor, Paul. Exactly.

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Seven

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Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Isaiah 40:1-11
John 1:19-28

John 1:19-28

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”

as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

 

I gotta say, it’s taken me a while to warm up to old John boy. How about you?

There is something so severe about him, isn’t there? A true ascetic from birth — he was a Nazarite, which meant no alcohol, and sometimes meant no shaving or hair-cutting, either — he was big on self-denial. Now that’s never been a particularly strong suit for me, I must admit. Alcohol has never been a problem — I don’t like the stuff and have a family history of alcoholism, so I’ve steered clear — but I have used food unwisely and too often resort to retail therapy during stressful times! 

But John got some things right. REALLY right. He was obedient to who he was and to who God called him to become. He made his message very, very clear. He spoke truth to power. And he knew what his limits were and didn’t hesitate for a moment to admit them. “Nope,” he said. “I am most definitely not the Messiah. And not Elijah, either. I am ‘the voice.'” That’s it — the voice.

The one who cries out in the wilderness. The one who says, “Get ready!! God is coming.”

And for that, I say a humble and heartfelt ‘thank you’ to John the Baptizer. 

I’m listening, John. And oh! I want to be ready.