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 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.

31 Days of 5 Minute Prompts: Day Four — HOPE

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There is something about a colorful sky that lifts my heart in hope. We have floor-to-ceiling windows across the entire back side of our house and our view is wide and colorful, giving glimpses of city life, the mountains across from us, and a peek at the sea down the hill and to the right. In certain seasons of the year, we have a direct view of the morning sunrise; at other times, we enjoy the sunset. Sometimes, we get to enjoy a bit of both!

This was a spectacular sunrise early in the month of September, a joyous surprise when I rose early to make a trip across the hall to the WC. To say I was stunned is an understatement. It’s been a tough season the last several months — lots of loss in our broader circle of friends and family, and I was feeling tired and discouraged much of the time. 

This view, early in the day, literally caused my heart to lift and my spirit to sing! Yes, there is loss. There is always loss — it’s part of life, it’s part of love. But. BUT, there is always a new day, isn’t there? And sometimes that new day is filled with surprising hope. 

This was one of those days.

Heading Home: Walking with Jesus to the Cross — Day Thirty-Six

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Matthew 22:23-33

The same day some Sadducees came to him, saying there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same, so also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, then, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”

Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God,  ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.

Always trying to trip Jesus up. If it wasn’t the Pharisees, then it was the other important group-within-a-group, the Sadducees. They were the ones interested in ‘the law,’ sometimes described as ‘teachers of the law’ in scripture. And they did not believe in a bodily resurrection. So they decided to hone in on that doctrinal issue and see if they couldn’t stump the teacher.

No such luck. They took a fine point in the law – the levirate marriage succession, wherein a widowed woman became the wife (or the property?) of her former husband’s brother – and came up with the most complicated scenario they could devise, sure that they had finally found a way to make this popular teacher fumble and bumble his way to an answer.

As always, Jesus turns the tables. He didn’t just do it literally, you know. He did it all the time with these pesky questions, and today’s little vignette is a particularly interesting example of that technique. Not only does Jesus affirm his belief in a resurrection, but he fills in some blanks about that transformative new life that awaits us after death. Not sure if this means we’ll be asexual or just unsexual, but it’s surely different from this life, isn’t it? And then he pulls the rug right out from under them and asks, “Why do you keep talking about the resurrection of the dead?? We serve a God of the living!”

And that is just about the finest and simplest expositions of the doctrine of bodily resurrection I’ve ever read anywhere.

Thank you, Lord, for the promise of eternity. We don’t understand it — something we share with the Sadducees of the first century! But we trust that you DO understand it and that you’re speaking truth to these trouble-makers. Thank you for always telling the truth, even when we try our best to trip you up. Thank you for making it simple and for keeping the main thing, the main thing.

31 Days of Paying Attention — DAY THIRTY-ONE!!!

We made it! THIRTY-ONE DAYS IN A ROW. My deep thanks for those who have followed along on this daily journey, and my sad farewell to some who said, ‘enough,’ and unsubscribed. I have really enjoyed this year’s challenge and I hope those of you still reading have enjoyed it, too. Here’s the last one:

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Yesterday, we had a party. A really big party. Our church community gathered to celebrate our senior pastor and his wife. They have been with us for eleven good years and yesterday was their last day with us. They’re making a big move, in two parts, to get themselves closer to retirement in a few years. We will miss them very much, but are grateful for their service, commitment, good humor, skill, and love.

A small steering committee gathered to plan this farewell — for which we had only about five weeks notice — and had a grand time figuring out gifts for them that might bring them happy memories of their time with us. We had that photo up there blown up BIG, got a special write-on-able mat for it and then invited everyone to sign it on their way into luncheon and a fun program following our farewell worship service.

We chose this photo because Butterfly Beach became a favorite place for both of them —  especially for Don, who used this glorious spot for his own private swimming hole on a regular basis. They are now heading for work in Minnesota (for him – interim work) and establishing their new, permanent home in North Carolina (for her — a beautiful setting, to be sure . . . but one without a glimpse of the ocean to be found anywhere). 

There were other gifts as well, things we came up with as a group of friends who have tried to pay attention to what moves them, what makes them smile, what brings them a feeling of satisfaction. I hope we paid attention well.

Giving gifts can be a risky thing, you know? We hope we’ve guessed right. But I’ve learned over the years that sometimes that is really tough to do. So money is a fabulous smooth-over-the-unknown-spots kind of gift and we did our best to gather up a bit of that as well. 

Godspeed, Johnsons! We’re grateful for you, we bless you, we send you off with love and thanks.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Thirty

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The last of our ‘touring quartet’ of would-be poets was a woman I’ve known for the last several years. She is a Catholic nun, currently residing with and caring for her aging father. She is feisty! Smart, efficient, well-organized, she was often the only female in the retreat center where she was the resident director for almost twenty years. That’s how I knew her initially — she was the check-in person when I resided at that Mission retreat center for two weeks each of the two summers I was in training to become a spiritual director. Sister Susan was a no-nonsense, quick-to-smile, energizer bunny in that setting.

And then we were classmates at a writing seminar I went to earlier this year. I hadn’t seen her in about five years and it was an absolute treat to get to know her in an entirely different context. So when I walked into that library at the Museum of Natural History last month, I was delighted that she would be in the same walking group I was.

This tree was her silent selection as we made our way from point to point on our metaphor-seeking journey. Look at it closely and tell me what YOU see there. This is what I saw:

Scars
long,
short,
open,
closed
each one a story,
a souvenir
of life,
well-lived

We all bear scars, don’t we? Life isn’t life without making marks on us, all kinds of marks. I’m working on seeing my particular scars as lovely things, reminders of a lot of living — some of it pleasant, some of it not so much, but all of it . . . GOOD.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty-Eight

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We had an entire school day with these lovely ladies earlier this month! Because we are the grandparents who happen to live in the neighborhood, we sometimes get to enjoy their company when there is a school holiday for them which their parents do not get. This was Columbus Day, I believe, and they came sleepily into our living room at a few minutes before 8:00 a.m. 

Whenever they come, I try to plan some easy treat for us to make together. That day, we made Rice Krispie Pinwheels, which are messy, fun and delicious! I gave them those aprons for Christmas and their mama knew enough to pack them in their carry bag, so on they went. So cute.

I have so enjoyed paying attention to my grandchildren through the years. They are each themselves, totally unique individuals. Yes, we bear a strong family resemblance to one another, but their interests, talents, accomplishments, struggles are all distinct and quite wonderful. Our eldest is now 25, making his way as a cinematographer in the Hollywood scene; his next younger brother is in grad school in PA — in mathematics! The next two — one a freshman in college and the other a senior in high school — have very different interests and majors in mind. You get the message, right? Every one of God’s children is their own, special person and our task, as adults in their lives, is to help them realize and celebrate those uniquenesses.

The older of these two sisters is artistic, loves to read (for hours on end, much like I did at her age!) She is also quite good at tennis (not like me in the least, thank you, God) and has a long list of friends. The younger is more energetic, flitting from one thing to another, loving it all. She especially loves playing small-cramped-house with Poppy when she comes to visit:

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Poppy is laughing hysterically because trying to get into this space was just about as much as his almost 75-year-old body could manage! But he did it — bless him! — and they had a ball. We love the opportunity to be with these wonderful creatures and feel it a God-given privilege to be able to point them toward their best selves and to encourage their gifts.

Are there children in your life to whom you feel called to pay attention? Tell me a little about them!

31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty-Three

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And then, it was my turn to point to something as we walked in the gardens of the Natural History Museum during that poetry workshop last month. I went immediately to this potted plant, which was drawing both humming birds and bees to its blooms. I was attracted to its vibrant color first of all — if you haven’t figured this out already, I happen to love clear, bright colors. It sparkled in the sunlight of the late afternoon and I could see why the hummers and the bees found it appealing.

But as I stared at it for a minute, and waited for the words to come, the metaphor to take shape, I was struck by this particular bloom, which was more than half gone. So am I. That is both a hard truth to acknowledge and a lovely piece of truth. My journey is more than half done. 

But there are parts of this half-done plant that are still vibrant, colorful, and attractive to God’s creatures. Yeah, that’s what I want to be, please God. That’s what I want to be:

magenta bracts
gray-green leaves
reaching every which way
blooming,
fading,
dying
all in place —
hanging on,
hanging on.

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Twenty

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And then there was this magnificence! On our way north to the retreat, we saw a small sign when we stopped for gas: “Pinnacles National Park, 9 miles.” National Park? we wondered. So I looked it up. Pinnacles was recognized and set aside as a National Monument in 1916 — a good long time ago — but it wasn’t made into a National Park until 2012. Score! A new park, one we had never seen before.

So we made a mental note to take the road out to see it on our way home three days later. It was SO worth the trip, even though the road was narrow, twisty and steep and we were almost two hours later getting home than we had originally planned.

This particular terrain needs to be seen to be believed. Strange looking rock formations thrust their way out of the earth in an area barely 45 square miles wide. There is no road through the park, but there are two entrances, one on each side. The one available to us took us to a new Visitor Center which featured this view in its backyard. And then, we discovered a picnic area two miles further. So we drove, down, down, down and stopped there for about 90 minutes. We pulled out our fruit, cheese and crackers and just savored the view.

Sometimes paying attention means discovering things that have always been there, yet you’ve missed them. This was one of those times. One of our daughters used to live in the Monterey Bay area and we drove north to visit her little family regularly. The Camp we went to on this retreat is a spot I’ve driven to probably ten times over the past twenty years.

Yet we had never seen that sign.

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Paying attention to small things can sometimes produce miraculous results! The sign was small; the park was glorious. Now this is a park for hikers, which we are not. And for spelunkers, which we also are not. But it’s also a space that can be appreciated for its beautiful strangeness — and that, we can do! We are appreciators of beautiful strangeness from way back!

This particular set of rocks is the result of a massive earthquake many thousands of years ago which caused a 200 mile shift in both directions. The strange chemical make-up of these crazily shaped rocks is only seen in one other place in our state . . . 200 miles to the south. But those don’t look like these physically — in fact, there is nowhere else on earth that looks quite like this place. 

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The flowers here are the ones of late summer and early fall. Can you imagine what it must look like in the spring? California’s wildflowers are one of the most beautiful things on this earth. Now, because we caught sight of one small sign, because we took one small risk and went down a new road, we have discovered a brand new place to go looking for them.

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You know, that gas station we chose to pull off the road and visit was not a very nice one — not clean, had only outdoor toilets because their well had run dry and it was not well-maintained.

But. That sign nearby it? Absolutely priceless! 

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31 Days of Paying Attention — Day Six

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The week before my husband and I attended that retreat for retired pastors/spouses, I was given the gift of two days away at a Catholic retreat center in Sierra Madre, California. It is one of my favorite places to go to be quieter than usual, to think more deeply than usual, to absorb some of the beauties offered by our Catholic sisters and brothers, beauties which always encourage me to pay attention to my life.

This retreat house is owned and operated by the Passionist Order, which was founded by St. Paul of the Cross. This is how they describe themselves on their American website: 

The Passionists are a global order of Roman Catholic priests, brothers, nuns, sisters and laity who proclaim God’s love for the world revealed through the Passion of Jesus Christ. Founded in 1741, today we continue to carry a message of compassion and hope to 59 countries throughout the world.

It is a place of great beauty — I wrote a photo essay about one of the gardens on their grounds here. Another spot on those grounds had four lovely granite pillars engraved with the names of a long list of donors. Interspersed throughout that list were some thought-provoking quotes from their founder and I took pictures of several of those. I’ll be interspersing them throughout this series, challenging myself to think about them more deeply — paying attention to the words and the thoughts behind them. Here is the first one:

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Do you believe this? Do I? Oh, I hope so! Because I think it is one of the most deeply true sentences ever written. Love is the best teacher in the world. It is at the heart of creation, at the center of the gospel, and is the distillation of everything Jesus came to do, to teach and to be. According to him, LOVE is the greatest of the commandments — love of God, love of neighbor and love of self. 

Why then, do so many of us who call ourselves Christ-followers engage in so many un-lovely, un-loving actions, words and thoughts? Perhaps because of what I wrote in the paragraph just above this one — because it is at the center of who we are called to be. Staying centered in love requires vigilance, humility, honesty, patience and openness. And our enemy knows exactly how to derail us as we seek to follow after Jesus. Bigotry, cruelty, and all the isms you might care to list are tools in that Enemy’s kit and WOW, do we let him have a field day in our deepest selves.

My prayer today, and every day, is for more love. I pray for an interruptor — an inner Voice to call me back, again and again, to who I am called to be, who I am designed to be: one who lives loved first, and then one who lives love.

That’s where it has to start, with living loved. If I forget — even for an instant — that God loves me, cherishes me, delights in me — then I am vulnerable to the crippling self-doubt and self-hatred that fuels so much of the vitriol that is flooding our world. When I do not stand tall in the truth of my own belovedness, then I am unable to live love out in the dailyness of my life. 

More love, Lord. More trust in the truth of who I am. More ability to live in the center of that truth in ways that reflect my Jesus.

 

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