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 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 Eight

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Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, The Message

God, you smiled on your good earth!

    You brought good times back to Jacob!
You lifted the cloud of guilt from your people,
    you put their sins far out of sight.
You took back your sin-provoked threats,
    you cooled your hot, righteous anger.

I can’t wait to hear what he’ll say.

  God’s about to pronounce his people well,
The holy people he loves so much,
    so they’ll never again live like fools.
See how close his salvation is to those who fear him?
    Our country is home base for Glory!

Love and Truth meet in the street,
    Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
    Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
    our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,

I do so love to discover what Eugene Peterson does with familiar passages! This is a glorious psalm, one of my favorites. And I love this version from The Message. This is a song of deep hope, based on the promises of God. And it paints a picture of the future that is delightful — living right, living whole, love and truth — they meet up and embrace/kiss each other! We’re moving in that direction, friends. I know it doesn’t much look like it at times — maybe, especially true in the times that are NOW — but it’s coming. It is coming. And waiting for that time is a central part of this waiting we do during Advent — recognizing and celebrating that God isn’t done with the world yet. Not by a long shot! Were heading toward heaven — ‘the new heaven and the new earth’ — where all the promises of this lovely song will be fulfilled. Thanks be to God.

Help me to wait well, Lord. Give me patience, the patience that can only come when I allow YOU to be my peace. Help me to rest in Jesus, to trust that though the process seems slow and arduous to me, when looked at in the light of eternity, I am moving toward that wondrous place in the time it takes me to blink! 

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Seven

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Micah 5:1-5a, NLT

Mobilize! Marshal your troops!
    The enemy is laying siege to Jerusalem.
They will strike Israel’s leader
    in the face with a rod.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
    whose origins are in the distant past,
    will come from you on my behalf.
The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
    until the woman in labor gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
    will return from exile to their own land.
And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
    for he will be highly honored around the world.
And he will be the source of peace.

Such a lovely promise, made centuries before Jesus ever appeared on the scene. The early church poured over the scriptures we call the Old Testament, searching for connections to all that they had seen and heard when Jesus walked the earth. And this beautiful passage was tailor made! From the tiniest, most backwater town (population? about 300 souls at the turn of the 1st century), comes the promised leader of God’s people. Not at all the kind of leader that they thought they wanted. But oh! So much the one they — and we — needed. A Shepherd-Leader, one who tends and searches out the lost, who protects us from robbers and who brings us into abundant places of rest, relaxation and refreshment. Not all the time — we all know that! But maybe, in a certain way, it IS all the time . . . in our heart of hearts there are green pastures and flowing streams, always. No matter the chaos that surround us. Why? Because wherever the Shepherd is, we are safe. No matter what. No matter what.

Blessed Savior/Shepherd — thank you that you bring refreshment and nourishment with you. Thank you that we can find peace — your special peace — deep within us, even when everything around us is insane. Thank you that you came from ‘the past’ right into our present. And that you go before us into the future, too. Thank you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Six

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Micah 4:6-13

“On that great day,” God says,
    “I will round up all the hurt and homeless,
    everyone I have bruised or banished.
I will transform the battered into a company of the elite.
    I will make a strong nation out of the long lost,
A showcase exhibit of God’s rule in action,
    as I rule from Mount Zion, from here to eternity.

“And you stragglers around Jerusalem,
    eking out a living in shantytowns:
The glory that once was will be again.
    Jerusalem’s daughter will be the kingdom center.”

So why the doomsday hysterics?
    You still have a king, don’t you?
But maybe he’s not doing his job
    and you’re panicked like a woman in labor.
Well, go ahead—twist and scream, Daughter Jerusalem.
    You are like a woman in childbirth.
You’ll soon be out of the city, on your way
    and camping in the open country.
And then you’ll arrive in Babylon.
    What you lost in Jerusalem will be found in Babylon.
God will give you new life again.
    He’ll redeem you from your enemies.

But for right now, they’re ganged up against you,
    many godless peoples, saying,
“Kick her when she’s down! Violate her!
    We want to see Zion grovel in the dirt.”
These blasphemers have no idea
    what God is thinking and doing in this.
They don’t know that this is the making of God’s people,
    that they are wheat being threshed, gold being refined.

On your feet, Daughter of Zion! Be threshed of chaff,
    be refined of dross.
I’m remaking you into a people invincible,
    into God’s juggernaut to crush the godless peoples.
You’ll bring their plunder as holy offerings to God,
    their wealth to the Master of the earth.

Yowza. These prophets don’t pussy-foot around, do they? They tell it like it is and like it will be and sometimes, it is hard to read. But here and there, like beautiful bread crumbs, there are phrases, ideas, hope. That was one of the jobs of the prophets, you know — to be harbingers of hope to God’s people in times of devastation and loss. Yes, they also brought plenty of bad news and the despair that accompanies such news. But woven throughout, there are words of life and of promise.

The truth is, we don’t know what God is up to when things are looking bleak. We cannot see the ways in which the painful circumstances of today will be redeemed as gifts tomorrow. And yet that is what happens. . . eventually. We may not live to see that redemption. I frequently need to remind myself that there is a 400+ year gap between the OT prophets and the great good-news-gift of the gospel. There IS a big picture, a very long through line. That’s what we need to grab hold of when times are tough. Look for the seeds. Look for the seeds.

Lord, make me a seed-finder, please? Some days, hanging onto hope is tougher than others. But hope is there. It is always there! Advent waiting reminds us of that powerful truth — so . . . help us to hang on.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Five

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Psalm 79, TLB

O God, your land has been conquered by the heathen nations. Your Temple is defiled, and Jerusalem is a heap of ruins. The bodies of your people lie exposed—food for birds and animals. The enemy has butchered the entire population of Jerusalem; blood has flowed like water. No one is left even to bury them. The nations all around us scoff. They heap contempt on us.

O Jehovah, how long will you be angry with us? Forever? Will your jealousy burn till every hope is gone? Pour out your wrath upon the godless nations—not on us—on kingdoms that refuse to pray, that will not call upon your name! For they have destroyed your people Israel, invading every home. Oh, do not hold us guilty for our former sins! Let your tenderhearted mercies meet our needs, for we are brought low to the dust. Help us, God of our salvation! Help us for the honor of your name. Oh, save us and forgive our sins. Why should the heathen nations be allowed to scoff, “Where is their God?” Publicly avenge this slaughter of your people! Listen to the sighing of the prisoners and those condemned to die. Demonstrate the greatness of your power by saving them. O Lord, take sevenfold vengeance on these nations scorning you.

Then we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will thank you forever and forever, praising your greatness from generation to generation.

These are hard words to read. As I get older and grow deeper in my own knowledge and experience of God’s goodness, I find these kinds of words increasingly difficult to reconcile with my understanding of who God is and how God operates in this world.

And yet . . . I immediately recognize the emotional turmoil behind them. Those strong feelings of betrayal, of loss, of confusion. We all want to think that because we love God, our lives will be . . . easier? Less marked by grief? And yet. . . every single person that I know can personally testify to the powerful presence of loss and grief and pain in their lives.

So . . . maybe these words are really less about God than they are about us? These wailing words somehow give us permission to rail at God once in a while — to take our angst right to the Source of Life. And then . . . to leave those feelings there, safely held by the God who is good, who is loving, who weeps with us when we suffer, the God who gets it.

Thank you, Lord, that you do get it. Thank you that Jesus came to us, lived among us, suffered as we do, died as we do. Thank you that you are the original empathizer . . . that you have been where we so often find ourselves to be. Help us to lean into you when the hard stuff happens — to know that we are safe with you, all of us is safe with you . . . even those strong, negative emotions. Thank  you.

An Advent Journey: Reflections for Weary Travelers — Day Four, First Sunday of Advent

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1 Corinthians 1:3-9, NRSV

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

I gotta tell you — finding these lovely words in the middle of a lot of readings from the prophets is like stumbling over a diamond in the desert. Yes, we need the prophetic voice. Indeed, we do. But . . . we also need these kind words of grace. I want to pray these words over my family, over my friends at church, over my neighbors. I want to pray them over my husband and myself — and over you, too. Not one of us is lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the coming of the Lord. Not one. It is important, of course, to remember that every good gift comes to us ‘from the Father of Lights,’ as John’s epistle reminds us. But. . . they are given to US. God IS faithful, and we have exactly what we need to get us from one end of Advent to the other. And from one end of life to the other, too.

Oh, Lord, help me to remember this powerful truth. Especially on days when I don’t feel well, or when someone is angry at me about something, or when I’m unsure about what might be the next, best thing for me to do. Remind me that I have enough, that I am enough . . . because of you. Thank you.