An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twenty-Four

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Judges 13:2-24, NRSV

There was a certain man of Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat anything unclean,for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” Then the woman came and told her husband,“A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, ‘You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.’”

Then Manoah entreated the Lord, and said, “O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.” God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field; but her husband Manoah was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, “The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.” Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, “Are you the man who spoke to this woman?” And he said, “I am.”  Then Manoah said, “Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?” The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her.She may not eat of anything that comes from the vine. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.”

Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “Allow us to detain you, and prepare a kid for you.” The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “If you detain me, I will not eat your food; but if you want to prepare a burnt offering, then offer it to the Lord.” (For Manoah did not know that he was the angel of theLord.) Then Manoah said to the angel of the Lord, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your words come true?” But the angel of theLord said to him, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful.”

So Manoah took the kid with the grain offering, and offered it on the rock to the Lord, to him who works wonders. When the flame went up toward heaven from the altar, the angel of the Lord ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife looked on; and they fell on their faces to the ground.The angel of the Lord did not appear again to Manoah and his wife. Then Manoah realized that it was the angel of the Lord. And Manoah said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen God.” But his wife said to him, “If theLord had meant to kill us, he would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering at our hands, or shown us all these things, or now announced to us such things as these.”

The woman bore a son, and named him Samson. The boy grew, and the Lord blessed him.

Many years ago, before I ever entered seminary, before I became a pastor, I wrote a series of small, one-act, readers’-theater versions of several OT stories. This was one of my favorites. I mean, just read it! This woman is the hero of the entire drama, and she is never even named. NEVER EVEN NAMED.

For all of history, she remains, “Manoah’s wife.”

And Manoah? What a dunce! She tells him what’s happened to her and his feathers are ruffled. “Why didn’t that man come to ME? I’m the man of the house!” And then he doesn’t believe what she tells him.

So the angel comes again and decides to depart in a particularly dramatic way. FINALLY, Manoah understands that his wife was right all the time. She did have a visit from a messenger of God. SHE, not he.

Seems to me that the messengers of God have a partiality for women during this Advent season. 

Thank you, Lord God, for all the nameless women who have gone before us, who have been faithful, who have seen you, active in their lives. Thank you for their witness, even without being named. And help us, with the increased power and recognition that has been gained over time, help us women of today to be as faithful and true as this one was. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twenty-Three

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2 Samuel 6:12-19, NRSV

It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.

They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.

So . . . why is this passage among our readings for Advent? I’m not entirely sure! But I’ll tell you what percolates in my mind as I read it: dancing for joy. What does that look like? What does that feel like?

Michal, Saul’s daughter and one of David’s wives, didn’t like the look of it at all. And there is something very important about her inclusion in this story, I think. She didn’t approve of her husband’s semi-nakedness, nor of his exuberance. Approval  . . . such a strange idea. If God approves — and clearly God does — then what right does Michal have to do otherwise? 

We can fall into her trap so easily! Someone gets a little too agitated, too noisy, too revelatory in some way — and we pull into ourselves, noses in the air, and decide that kind of behavior is somehow beneath us.

Well . . . maybe not.

How differently this story might have unfolded if Michal had gone out and joined her husband in praising God for the safe arrival of the Ark of the Covenant! How might the troubled family dynamics that were yet to come have been ameliorated if Michal had entered into her marriage relationship with her whole self? We will never know  . . . but, I wonder. I wonder.

Lord, keep me from becoming Michal in any way! Help me to let go of my need to offer either approval or disapproval for anyone else’s behavior/decisions/actions. Keep my eyes and my heart focused on you, always looking for reasons to dance for joy, to lift my hands in praise. Keep me limber, open, and in tune with joy.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twenty-Two

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Hebrews 1:1-4, NRSV

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Somehow, this photo seemed appropriate for the reading today. It was taken on the first day of the Thomas fire and has a slightly apocalyptic feel to it. And there is a very real way in which the first coming of Jesus into this world was its own kind of apocalypse!

Before Jesus, we had the prophets to speak of God to us. Now, we have Jesus, who IS God. “The exact imprint of God’s very being,” the author of Hebrews tells us. Could it be any more clearly stated? If we want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If we want to know how we should live, look at Jesus.

Look at Jesus.

That’s what Christmas, Advent, LIFE is all about.

Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit — teach us to look to Jesus. Always and only. Amen.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twenty-One

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Mark 9:9-13, The Message

Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t tell a soul what you saw. After the Son of Man rises from the dead, you’re free to talk.” They puzzled over that, wondering what on earth “rising from the dead” meant.

Meanwhile they were asking, “Why do the religion scholars say that Elijah has to come first?”

Jesus replied, “Elijah does come first and get everything ready for the coming of the Son of Man. They treated this Elijah like dirt, much like they will treat the Son of Man, who will, according to Scripture, suffer terribly and be kicked around contemptibly.”

Peterson, once again, nails it. The scene for this small interchange is the Mount of Transfiguration and those three close disciples have just seen something that made the eyes bug out of their heads. And then . . . Jesus orders them to shut up about it. Say what? We just saw you shining like lightening and Elijah and Moses coming alongside, having a little sidebar with you, and now we cannot talk about it?? Exactly.

Mark has Jesus tell his disciples to keep quiet frequently. Scholars call it “the Messianic secret,” and it’s an interesting part of Mark’s viewpoint. Clearly, they don’t keep all those secrets terribly well, do they? And they don’t understand Jesus’s logic for this particular secret-keeping at all. Rising from the dead? What the heck does that mean?

But they found out, didn’t they? And then all those other warnings came flooding back, all those secrets — the ones they kept and the ones they didn’t — and they began talking about them and writing them down. So now, we have them. Isn’t that wonderful? 

Personally, I think Jesus still shows up secretly. A lot. In the midst of ugliness, suddenly there is a spot of beauty. In the midst of despair, there is a shaft of hope. Just glimpses, that’s usually all we get. But eventually, those glimpses will grow and grow and grow, until the time is here when ALL will be revealed. That’s what Advent is about, you know. Yes, we wait for the baby. But we wait for the Risen Savior, too. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

Help us to wait well, Lord. Help us to look for you in the secret places  you show up between now and then. And open our hearts and our arms to those small moments of grace, goodness, beauty and love that make life worth living. Help us to bring them as well as to see them, Lord God. Make us hope-bringers and love-givers.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Twenty

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Acts 3:17—4:4

 “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.’ And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

I gotta admit — it’s not feeling like we’ve lived up to this promise in Acts very well. Are ‘all nations of the earth’ blessed because of us, the church, those who follow after Jesus? That’s what’s supposed to happen, but . . . does it?

Sometimes, yes, sometimes, not so much. And sometimes, not at all.

We are called, we are designed, to be bringers of blessing, not curse — harbingers of hope, not despair. So, let’s be who we’re supposed to be, whaddya say? Wherever you go this day, see if you can keep that idea at the front of your heart and mind: I’m meant to be a bringer of blessing. So, the checker at the grocery store, the clerk at the coffee shop, the guy in the cubicle next to you, the students you teach, or the teachers from whom you learn — are they blessed by your presence with them, even if it’s momentary?

Are others blessed by my presence? 

Good questions to ask as we draw ever nearer to Christmas.

Good questions to ask all through the year, too.

Lord, help me to be a person who blesses others. Keep my lips from criticism — and even my face, Lord. Keep me from scowling, eyebrow-raising, lip-pursing. May my presence be benign and welcoming, wherever I find myself throughout each day, Lord. Thank you!

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Nineteen


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Psalm 125, The Message

Those who trust in God
are like Zion Mountain:
Nothing can move it, a rock-solid mountain
you can always depend on.
Mountains encircle Jerusalem,
and God encircles his people—
    always has and always will.
The fist of the wicked
will never violate
What is due the righteous,
provoking wrongful violence.
Be good to your good people, God,
    to those whose hearts are right!
God will round up the backsliders,
corral them with the incorrigibles.
Peace over Israel!

Oh, I hope I’m like a mountain! That’s a great word picture for faithfulness, isn’t it? Immovable, dependable, sturdy. Yet even mountains are not impervious to harm. We’ve watched our beloved Santa Ynez mountains come under attack these last days, fire racing in every direction, leaving scars that will last for decades.

But they still stand. YES. They still stand.

Beaten, but not bowed. Wounded, but not dissolved.

Soon, I hope, I will see them again from my perch by the window where I write. I’m not sure I realized how much I depend on that view to anchor me as I work. They are there — but I can no longer see them. At all.

I trust they remain, and that someday soon, the fresh sea breeze will blow all this smoke and ash away and my view will be restored. Yet, even when I cannot see their outline . . those mountains are there, standing tall. So, I pray that I’ll stand tall, too. And you, wherever  God has placed you — that  you will stand tall, no matter what. 

Help us, O God of Zion, help us to be mountains for you. Unshakeable, immovable, faithful, dependable. Thank you for these words, for this picture of commitment, and for the psalmist’s reminder that YOU encircle us, even as mountains encircle cities. Thank you!

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.