Birthing New Peace

For unto us a child is born.  Born in a manger.  Born for you and for me.

Born is the King of Israel, the Prince of Peace.

All through out the season of Advent these phrases keep showing up. We hear them said in sermons, we read them on cards, and we sing them in the Christmas carols that we listen to and play during the month of December.

The angels came with tidings of great joy to announce the Savior has been born. All throughout Advent we keep leaning into this mystery, that God took on flesh by being born of a virgin.

As this snowy fourth Sunday of Advent ushers in the week of Christmas do we look around us and see peace?

Do we feel peace?

In all of the phrases above, the action words are past tense. He is born, it is done, peace has come. I think that just like hope, faith, and joy, peace is something we have to let into our hearts.

These are all things we need to keep actively choosing on a daily basis. It isn’t something that was accomplished once a long time ago in the past when a virgin gave birth to our Savior and laid him in a manger that lasts forever more.

The birthing of peace is an ongoing process.

When we encounter the baby Jesus and the peace he brings it is like any other act of faith, we have to choose to accept what he offers us and allow him to enter into our hearts.

So often when we speak of peace it is on a global scale. Peace on earth. Peace in our communities. Peace in our homes.

But what about peace in our hearts?

Not just towards other people in the world, in our towns, and in our families, but towards ourselves.

We live in a culture with high expectations. We are told that we need to be constantly striving for bigger and better. Everything is a competition of who has more or does more.

And because of these cultural expectations, we place incredibly high expectations on ourselves. Instead of becoming who we are meant to be we focus on who we think we are expected to be.

We keep track of expectations like boxes to be check off our to do lists. Graduation – check. Career – check. Married – check. House – check. Kid(s) – check. We want security and we want to know what is coming and have a plan in place for everything. We want to be in control.

And we don’t stop there.

Once we have all of these, we cause ourselves more stress because we want everything to be the best. We want everything to be memorable. So we strive without ceasing to create the perfect homes and to have the perfect holidays.

What about any of this brings us a sense of peace?

We are told to be extraordinary, but Advent invites us to take another look at what is expected of us and to reconsider. When we look towards the manger in Bethlehem, we can find our Lord Jesus waiting there to meet us in the midst of our chaos and expectations.

What does he require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).

That’s it.

When we find Jesus in the manger we find his invitation to let go of our control and to put it all into his. He invites us to not have to have it all figured out. He invites us to live without the expectations we put on ourselves.

He invites us to rest and to embrace who we are meant to be. To be still, and enjoy the small things.

It’s okay to be ordinary and content.

It’s okay to not know what’s coming next.

Jesus calls us to be present in the moment we are in now.

Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk and theologian who lived during the first half of the twentieth century offers us this perspective:

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.

Jesus doesn’t promise us we won’t encounter struggles. What he does promise us is perfect peace when we lean not on our own understanding and instead put our trust into him.

For the past few weeks I have been sharing pictures of our Christmas tree. Today I want to share the other Christmas tree in our home.

It is much smaller. It is decorated with ornaments my mother made when I was small. It fits perfectly into the space it is meant to fill.

As we finish up our Advent journey this week and arrive at the manger with the new born King, I invite you to be like this Christmas tree.

Embrace where you are, with who you are, knowing you are meant to fill a specific space and that you are already doing this perfectly!

This year, let us find peace within ourselves and be comfortable just being.

Let us be actively seeking the peace that only God can bring to us.

O come, o come, Emmanual!

We are waiting in hope.

We are accepting in faith.

We are journeying in joy.

We are birthing new peace.

Journeying in Joy

We’ve probably all heard the expression happiness isn’t a destination but a journey and at some point we have probably also heard that we should find the joy in the journey.  

We hear that faith is a journey as well. 

At this time of year we may also hear that Christmas is the season of joy as we journey towards Bethlehem.    Maybe you recall with fondness like I do The Muppet’s Christmas Carol where all the Muppets tell us in song that this is the season to be jolly and joyous. 

 And many of us struggle with this, especially this year.

After a year like 2020 many of us are wondering how can we find jolly? What joy? Perhaps like Cindy Lou Who you are asking , “Where are you Christmas, why can’t I find you?” She ends her song in the movie adaptation of Dr Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas by asking, “Did Christmas change, or just me?”

We have faced many challenges this year. We have seen financial struggles. Struggles with restrictions that are for the greater good but leave us feeling trapped.

Struggles with illness and struggles with the loss of loved ones. This struggle has been intensified by the inability to be with our loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes and not being able to say our good byes as we would expect to be able to.

In the midst of all of these struggles how can we possibly find joy this season?

Advent is the journey of reflection as we look towards the coming light in the manger.   A reminder of hope.  

A promise that during happy times and bad we are never alone.    We are loved beyond measure no matter what.  We are celebrated in our successes and help up and supported in our struggles. 

I think one of the biggest misunderstandings we have as Christians is the idea that having joy in all things means we need to always be happy.  Despite our circumstances.  I don’t believe this is humanly possible and if God had intended for us to be always happy why would there be a need for any other emotions?

Instead I believe the key to having a Christian life that is well lived is we need to be able to embrace all of our emotions.  Express all of the different ways they make us feel. And feel the loving presence of God in the midst of all of them.

We are allowed to be angry at a situation. 

We are allowed to be sad and lament our losses.  

We are meant to grieve.  

What should set us apart as Christians is the certain hope that even though we feel all of these things, we are still God’s beloved.  He is walking with us on the good days and the bad. 

I saw a quote this week on Facebook that is attributed to St. Francis de Sales:

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow. The same loving Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and everyday. Either he will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.

-St. Francis de Sales

In other words, you are not alone.

Advent reminds us that we are on a journey together with a God who loves us enough to send his own Son down to make right the relationship between God and his human children.  No matter what we face we will be supported by the Father and guided by the Spirit.  We have the promise of joy.

Joy isn’t an emotion in this sense, but a state of mind and being.   The certainty that we are never alone.

It comes from accepting our beloved-ness and knowing we are a Child of God and allowing us to feel His presence with us in all of our emotions.   

So maybe you aren’t feeling the holiday spirit this year.  That is okay.  Be kind to yourself and do what you feel you can do right now in this moment.  If that is nothing, that is perfectly okay.  

You may have also heard the first Christmas was a pretty simple one.  Ours can be to. 

Maybe you have the energy to go full out holiday cheer and do all the things we see on the Hallmark channel.  Or maybe you are tired and weary and just making it through each day is what you can do. 

Be kind to yourself this holiday season. 

Give yourself and those around you the gift of grace.  Acknowledge that we are each doing the best we can in this time and season of our lives.  

Our Christmas tree is finally fully decorated.  As I look at it I see a progression of memories.  Memories from early years, and memories from the journey I am on with my own little family. 

It is a journey filled with good times, but also filled with many trials and tribulations.  This tree is a reminder that through it all, we were never alone. 

Our journeys are filled with so many different things.  All of it helps us become the people we are today.    All of it is part of both our collective and our individual journeys.

This advent my prayer for each of us is that we can find the true joy that comes from knowing we are loved beyond measure no matter how we are feeling.  

This advent I pray we are all able to find the joy that will help sustain each of us on this journey through life. 

O come, O come, Emmanual!

We are waiting in hope.

We are accepting in faith.

We are journeying in joy.

Accepting in Faith

Another Sunday has arrived.  We have reached the second Sunday of Advent in the year 2020.

Nothing about this year has been normal as we would call it in our current culture. I think what 2020 has taught us as a society is that no matter how much progress we make or knowledge we gain we are still not, and never will be, fully in control of this universe.

And that’s okay because we aren’t supposed to be.

There is still vastly more around us that we can’t understand or master. We all like to believe we are in complete control of our lives, but we really aren’t. The future for each of us is a mystery.

The season of Advent is a time of reflection, but it is also an invitation into mystery.

A reminder that we can’t control everything, but we can control where we put our trust, and have faith that we will have a guide for our future. Accepting whatever that might be.

A reminder that it is okay to lean into the mystery without having all of the answers beforehand.

Mary, the mother of our Lord and Savior, is the greatest example there is to us of what it means to lean into the mystery, surrender our control, and just accept with faith the direction our life is going.

I recently completed a Bible study by Kristi McLelland called Jesus & Women: In the First Century and Now and in the final study session she talks about her belief that Mary’s answer of yes to the angel Gabriel was one of the hardest yeses recorded in the Bible:

One of the hardest yeses in the Bible belonged to a young girl – Mary (Miriam). In Jesus’ day, young premenstrual girls were betrothed to eighteen-year-old boys…Betrothal usually lasted for one year. We can imagine Mary as eleven or twelve years old when Gabriel visited her. She was betrothed, not yet married…The adventure of birthing and being the mother of the Messiah came to a young girl. She had no idea what it would cost her. She knew it could cost her very life in an honor/shame culture.

(McLelland, 123)

Talk about courage and accepting in faith!

Mary lived in a culture where much was out of her control as well. She lived in a time where her people had been conquered and were living under Roman Occupation.

She also lived in a culture where women had no value and no say in their lives. They were expected to marry who they have been told to marry and then to produce sons. This was their purpose in life.

Even though she was young, Mary knew the expectations being put upon her by society, and she understood clearly what the consequences to saying this yes could be for her. She still accepted in faith.

This is why Mary’s faith is so remarkable!

She already had a fiance. She was doing her duty already as a daughter and was preparing to do her duty as a wife. She had a clear path in front of her that should lead to protection, food, and shelter. As good of a life as any Jewish woman could hope for in that time period. She had the assurance of respectability and thriving.

But she accepted in faith what God was asking her to do anyways.

This is why we still hear theologians exclaiming over the faith of Mary today.

This past year has been difficult for everyone.

Covid has become the Roman Empire of 2020. We can’t control it, we can only do our best to survive and get by under it. We are surrounded by uncertainties and fears. And this is difficult for each of us in many different ways.

But we can still have faith!

Faith in the Father who loves us, the Son who saves us, and the Spirit who guides us.

These aren’t easy times. Having faith doesn’t negate the bad. It doesn’t say that we can’t and aren’t suffering. Our Bibles are full of faithful people who questioned their situations and lamented over their disappointments and losses.

But they still had faith!

I am quite certain that Mary often lamented the things that happened to her and her circumstances after she agreed to become the mother of God. She had no clue if she would even live long enough to birth the Messiah she agreed to carry.

But she had faith!

Having faith doesn’t mean we are given all of the answers we need for moving forward. It means we accept where we are at and we are content in knowing that we are never alone.

Mary knew uncertainty and lonely. She knew pain and suffering. Mary knew grief, anguish, and despair.

But Mary accepted it all knowing she was never alone in any of these things.

And neither are we.

I may be feeling the losses and disappointments of this past year. My Christmas tree may still be waiting to have bulbs and decorations added to the lights that have finally been put on it. Maybe I wore my pajamas all day yesterday, but ultimately I know that I have the faith to press onward accepting that I am not alone. I do have a purpose and a future though I can’t see it clearly today and I am still surrounded with the Father’s loving kindness.

Even though I feel surrounded by darkness more often then not at times, I have faith that the Light is coming.

As Advent continues on, leading us to the light of the world born at Christmas, we are waiting and accepting all that we are experiencing as we lean into the mystery.

O come, O come, Emmanual!

We are waiting in hope.

We are accepting in faith.

Waiting in Hope

It is a bright and sunshiny morning. A stark contrast to how bleak the year of 2020 has been.

In a year that has been consistantly inconsistant, the one thing that we can continue to count on is how the world continues to orbit around the sun without fail. The calendar continues to move forward unrelentingly. The bleakness of the year a direct contradiction to the sunshine.

The steady progress of time has led us to the first Sunday of Advent. The calendar makes no apologies for the arrival of the season of reflection. And perhaps it is arriving more timely than ever this year as I find myself reflecting on the year and the season this morning.

In my mind I wanted to write a series of wonderfully thoughtful articles for each of the Sundays of Advent 2020. Every week would see the execution of a beautifully thought out element in a theme rich with symbolism and scritpture.

But alas the paradox of 2020 reaches even my writing. What I expected to write, and what I am able to write look nothing like what I expected it to this year.

In fact, until today, my writing for the year has pretty much been zero.

We have all been drained this past year. The effects of the global pandemic have been felt by all. My friend, Christiana Peterson, recently had a new book released called Awakened By Death.  In it she spends time talking about the black death plague and its affects on society.  Much as the plague was the great leveler of the middle ages that left no race or class untouched, Covid, too, has become the great leveler of our time.

It has no care if you are male or female, rich or poor, black or white, Catholic or Protestant. Covid has touched everyone. It has touched every last soul here on earth physically, financially, emotionally, spiritually, or in some combination of all of the above.

It has left us berift and empty, unable to even celebrate births, graduation and wedding or grieve our losses in the ways we would expect to. Too many goodbyes have had to be left unsaid.

Many of us are probably feeling like the Christmas tree that is currently sitting in my living room. It is still without any lights or decorations, just standing there in its stand with empty branches. Like many of us I think it wonders what the heck happened to it. How did it get to this place and where does it go from here?

And this is where we find the paradox of Hope.

In a world filled with chaos, despair, emptiness, and isolation we still have hope. It is always there for us. In the midst of panic, pandemic, and uncertainty we have a God who is still our loving Father.

Our Father who can fill us up and sustain us. He can teach us how to find calm in the storm and how to walk forward with a sense of his strength and purpose in our lives.

And we have the certain hope this season of Advent represents and reminds us of. Jesus was born for us men and for our salvation. He came down from heaven and he is coming again.

Our tree branches may be empty right now, but they don’t have to be. We have hope in Christ Jesus that we can cling too. Jesus is our light. He brings us hope that we will find a normal existance again. Hope that a treatment or vaccine will be found that will allow us to be together again. Hope that we will be able to see all of those dear faces again that have left empty seats at our tables.

Until then, we can be the light to each other, grieving together for all that has been lost in 2020. Hopefully waiting for the light of the world that is to come, Jesus.

Maybe, just maybe, the sunshine this morning isn’t such a contradiction after all, but the promise of the light to come in the days ahead of us.

O come, O come, Emmanual!

We are waiting and hoping.

Advent – Looking for Patience

It is another grey and cold morning as the third Sunday of Advent arrives.

Outside my window the barren branches of the dogwood tree are scratching against my dining room window.  It is a sorrowful and lonesome sound, and I am reminded again of my sorrows and the struggles of those around me.

Sorrow is a place of loneliness, a place of struggle, whether you are actually alone or surronded by a host of others.  Yet, we are made to feel during this most wonderful time of the year we must be happy and content no matter what.  Joyful always.  This leaves those of us who are struggling feeling outcast and even more lonely.   However, if we buy into this message that we need to make ourselves happy simply for the sake of the season, then we are again missing the message of Advent.

Advent tells us it is okay to be feeling sorrow.

It is okay to be feeling lost.

It is okay to be feeling alone.

In fact, Advent encourages us to embrace all of this, and in our solitude and quiet to bring these sorrows and troubles to our loving Heavenly Father.  He is filled with compassion for each of us, and wants to be our comforter if we will only seek him out.   He is faithful, even when we have not been.  His love is the front porch light that has been left on to welcome us back home.

While reading today’s lectionary readings, I was amazed to see the sorrow and suffering come full circle and turn to rejoicing.  This is a story of choosing the Lord and being his willing child and seeing the promises of God come to fruition in the advent of his Son.  Maybe this isn’t how the lectionary was meant to be read when these verses were put together, but it is what I discovered as I read.

The readings are a journey in God’s story from despair to promise to the promise fulfillment to each of us and instructions for us as we wait.  After all, Advent is the time of waiting and reflecting.

We begin our journey today in Psalm 146:5-10 which begins with the verse:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,  whose hope is in the Lord their God, (NRSV)

We are reminded of the ancient people of Israel, who despite God’s best intentions, just couldn’t keep their covenant promises with Him.  As a result, they are no longer a free and chosen people, but an exhiled people wondering if the God of Abraham has abandoned them from good.

THe next stop on our journey this morning is in the book of Isaiah, chapter 35 verses 1-10 where we find a promise from God in verse 4:

“Be strong, do not fear!  Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.  He will come and save you.”  (NRSV)

God has seen and heard the cries from his people and seen their sorrows during their exhile, and is making them a promise of deliverance.  He will once again rescue his people, sending a Messiah to restore them to the promise.

Continuing on our journey we find our way to Matthew 11:2-11 where Jesus says starting in verse 4:

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  (NRSV)

Many, many years have passed since the promise of a Messiah had been given.  The Jewish people have been freed from exhile and allowed to return to the promised land.  However, they are not a free people.   They are now under the oppression of the Roman empire and subject to much persecution.  When will the Messiah arrive?  Jesus, in response to John the Baptist’s question, is saying he is in fact the promised Messiah that was fore told by Isaiah.

At this point in our journey we must take a detour and backtrack in the story just a little.  We find ourselves now in Luke 1:46-55, the magnificant, Mary’s humn of praise:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”  (NRSV)

Mary is filled with so much joy at being the handmaiden of the Lord that she can’t contain it!  She is exclaiming of his faithfulness and her amazement of the great purpose she has been given by God that she is willingly able to do through his strength.  The sorrows and oppression are still all around her, but she is seeing God and placing all of her hopes on Him by being a willing participant in his plan.

The final destination on our journey today through God’s promises to us is James 5:7-10 which begins with:

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. (NRSV)

Just as the farmer must wait out the different seasons we also wait on seasons.  Each season brings us something.  We have seasons of great happiness and also seasons of great sorrow.  Through all of the seasons, be patient.

Patient with God’s timing.

Patient with the circumstances, good or bad.

Patient with ourselves.

As I have been writing this morning, the grey has slowly faded away and the day has taken on a brighter, if not sunny, appearance.  Another example of patience – if we but wait out the grey the light will always return.

Life, too, is a journey.  Advent is just another tool we have in our toolboxes – an atlas to help us find our way on the different roads and paths we find ourselves on.

Perhaps this season you are finding yourself at peace right now and feeling all of the happiness and joy that the season of giving brings.  And that is okay.  Or perhaps you, like me, are finding yourself more in a place of sorrow or struggle.  And that is okay too.

The one constant in all of these seasons is the hand of mercy and compassion of God willing to lead us and guide us as we lean on him.   Whether we are struggling or joyful we can go out, and like the brightening of the grey morning, show those around us that there is still light. If we just keep turning our faces towards it we will eventually find the bright abundance of it shining on us.

In Christ Jesus we find a savior who understands all of our ups and downs and he offers to each of us a place of belonging.

Advent reminds us that we no longer need to seek belonging because we already belong to God.  Each of us is called and chosen already.  No dues necessary, no application process.

Whether in a season of great joy or a season of great sorrow, we are all thirsty.  We all are seeking compassion and understanding.  We are seeking to be patient.

During Advent we remember we are all waiting to rejoice as Mary did, joyful in our blessings and patient in our sorrows, longing to find compassion and acceptance.

All of which we find in the reason for the season.  The King of glory, the Child of the poor.

Click here to listen to What Child Is This, Child of the Poor, one of my favorite hymns at this time of year that came to mind this morning as I was writing.