Prayer as Silence – Advent sermon series 4

In this concluding sermon in a series on prayer this Advent, I invite you to consider prayer as silence. In the first, we acknowledged prayer as growth – that there come times in our lives when God invites us into a deeper communion of prayer; and so, a different way of praying. In the second sermon, we considered that the fundamental work of prayer was to listen – listen to the other and listen to God. Last week, we reflected upon an important type of prayer that often is missed especially during times of the year we are called to be happy; the lament makes our relationship with God real and our ultimate joy authentic.

The eagle changes its flying posture depending on the state of the air around it.  When in flight it encounters noisy, turbulent air, the eagle folds its wings straight down and underneath, riding the agitated, unstable winds in as compact a body mass as possible.

But when the air is calm high above the earth, the eagle will spread its massive wingspan to its farthest limits. It will expand its body mass to its fullest potential as it coasts and glides on the silent, peaceful air.

Silence gets a bad rap in the Protestant church especially. Since the Reformation and Enlightenment, we are suspicious of anything that is interior or to do with experience. When we still our minds, we are afraid that we will let the devil in! 

And, we will straight away point to bad silence – like the violence percolating beneath the surface of giving someone ‘the silent treatment’. Or, we rightly condemn the complacent, fearful silence in face of injustice. In both cases, words must be spoken. And better loudly at that!

Yet, there is a silence that is healing, transformational. We find it in nature. We find it in the stillness of predawn dew resting on flowers and blades of grass. We experience it the first night in the bush after driving all day away from the loud, noisy city. 

We also find silence in the bold action born of convicted hearts, action that happens behind-the-scenes. Not in the spectacular, the sensational. Not in attention-grabbing largess of personality shock-and-awe. But in the quiet, dedicated, barely perceptible giving of those who know themselves and respond to the still, small voice speaking in their hearts.

This is Joseph. He appears, indeed, to be the strong, silent type. But not because he is afraid to say or do anything. But because he has the courage to respond. He begins his risky venture with Mary “after waking from sleep.” Even though he went to bed “considering in his mind” all the problematic aspects of his relationship with Mary, “resolving” to leave her, his course of action changed dramatically after he stopped the busy-ness of his mind, the activity of his consciousness – as good and righteous as it was – and went to sleep. And dreamt.[1]

There is a difference between the absence of noise and silence. Something is already happening in this holy silence. Something we’ve been too busy, too rushed, too loud, too distracted to notice. Where God already is, in between the words, in between the spaces defined by our cerebral, ego-driven impulses and imaginations.

This is good, Lutheran theology! The grace of God already exists in our lives. We don’t have to make it happen. Really, we don’t! God is in the world, already. It is given. God is present. God is waiting for us, in the silence of our hearts. God is waiting, already, in the circumstances and situations of the world. God is always listening to us. 

But are we always listening to God? Are we willing to step into the river of God’s action and Spirit? Will we immerse ourselves into the prayer already flowing in our lives, a prayer flowing into the ocean of God’s presence and love? The late Thomas Keating was known to have said, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation.”[2]

It is in silence where we can be fully and truly who we are. We don’t have to hide anything. We don’t have to meet anyone’s expectations, put on a good impression or please anyone. We can let go and let all that is there come to the surface in the confidence that all of it is held in God’s love – the good, the bad and the ugly. We can stretch to our fullest without judgement. We may be, in truth, letting the devil out, not in.

May we step into the spaciousness of God’s mercy, peace and joy just waiting for us in the silence of God’s ever-present love. May we learn to pray in the gift of silence, especially when we may so desperately need it.


[1]Matthew 1:18-25

[2]Cited in Theresa Blythe, Fifty Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006) p.32

Prayer as Lament – Advent sermon series 3

Traditionally, the Third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, a command to rejoice! Be joyful!

In all the furtive busy-ness of getting ready for the big day, in all the running around and striving to check off everything on the ‘to do’ list before Christmas, carrying all the pressure and responsibility …

The church says: don’t take yourselves too seriously on this journey. There are times when we need to not just listen up, but lighten up. Gaudete!

Yes, we are on the path of transformation. And this path requires us to be intentional and disciplined. After all, Christmas is coming; there is much to prepare! It was Ignatius of Loyola, a contemporary of Martin Luther in the 16thcentury, who urged the church to “pray as if everything depended on God, and work as if everything depended on us.”[1]

Not bad advice. Except we won’t survive this journey if we don’t also take the foot off the gas pedal from time to time. Can we let things be as they are? Can we accept ourselves and rejoice even at the imperfection of our lives – the cracks in who we are? Or, have we deluded ourselves into thinking that only when everything is perfect, and finished, and just the way it ought to be, then, and only then, can we rejoice?

How can we be authentically joyful, especially when things aren’t the way they are supposed to be in our lives and in the world?

In our ordinary lives as much as in our worship and prayer, we have to make room for lament. Lament? It seems odd to suggest that on Gaudete Sunday of all days – the Sunday during Advent when we are called to rejoice – we offer our laments to God in prayer.

I’d like to suggest this is the path to expressing true joy. Lament as a necessary step on the path to true acceptance, hope and joy. So that our rejoicing isn’t just an extension of our culture’s surface ‘good cheer’ which often only masks deeper needs.

The Psalms, which are the primary prayer book for the ancient Israelites and Jews of Jesus’ day, are filled with laments. We read one together this morning.[2]Even Jesus, after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, expressed his disappointment and sorrow over Jerusalem[3]. And then in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died, Jesus prayed to God if only his cup of suffering could be taken away.[4]Jesus wept for the death of his friend Lazarus[5], and on the cross he cried out, “O God, why have you forsaken me!”[6]quoting a Psalm. Jesus was familiar with, and used often, the prayers of lament on his journey to new life.

Perhaps we are afraid that if we do take the foot off the gas pedal during this season of rush-rush, we might not very much like what comes to the surface. In that moment when we are not driven by our compulsions and distractions, what scary thing might emerge?

This season can be difficult for those, for example, who grieve the loss of loved ones especially when it is the first Christmas celebrated without them. We are supposed to feel happy, but we are burdened by a deep sadness of loss. And all those messages that declare we are to be ‘joyful’ only serve to deepen our sorrow. How, then, can we be joyful?

In the Academy Award winning movie, “Inside Out”, eleven-year-old Riley has moved to San Francisco, leaving behind her life in Minnesota. She and her five core emotions, Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy struggle to cope with her new life.

In the movie, each of these emotions is a separate character in the control room of Riley’s mind. Until the big move, it was always Joy who was in the driver’s seat. Joy determined how Riley processed events and situations in her life. Even if Riley, who loved to play hockey on the family pond, missed a shot on goal, Joy would step in and emphasize the bright, positive side of the situation. Sadness would always stand nearby, trying to be more influential in defining Riley’s experiences. But, until the move to San Francisco, Joy always won out.

When big events in our lives happen – events that are happy or sad – these change us and the way we look upon life. By Joy insisting on dominating, even when Riley experienced significant challenges at school and at home after the move, she became worse and worse, shutting out her parents and isolating herself.

It was only when Joy let Sadness take control, did Riley turn the corner. Riley became better in her new life when no emotion was denied, but given its rightful place given the circumstance. The emotions – especially Joy and Sadness – discovered that both have to take turns in the driver’s seat from time to time. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

Christianity did not combine opposites into some kind of favourable blend. Neither does having faith exclude, deny nor avoid one in favour of the other. Rather, our faith holds all dimensions of the human, and all the dimensions of the divine in vibrant and furious tension.[7]Like, the tension of becoming truly joyful when we can also offer our lament. When we can let sadness take the driver’s seat for a bit of that journey especially when it seems it’s supposed to be all about being happy all of the time.

In the Advent study group on prayer, we reviewed the various characteristics of a lament by looking at some Psalms. One characteristic will often escape our notice, maybe because it doesn’t fit our expectations of what lamenting is. You know, we think it’s all tears and gnashing of teeth and breast-beating and woe-is-me kind of stuff.

But a lament is not a lament unless it also carries the one who is praying into a place of confidence and trust in God. Maybe that’s why Jesus lamented so much. Because he was so faithful to Abba. Trusting in God his Father. Besides the obvious grievances and plea for help expressed in the Psalm, did you not also hear and feel joy born out of confidence and trust from the Psalmist’s words this morning?

“Restore us, O God; let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved. You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it … Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted … Let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one you have made so strong for yourself. And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your name. Restore us, O Lord of hosts; let your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved.”[8]

Prayer as growth. Prayer as Listening. Prayer as Lament. On the road to Christmas.

[1]Cited in Patrick J. Howell, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year A Volume 1(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.65-66.

[2]Psalm 80; see also Psalms 74, 79, 85, 90.

[3]Matthew 22:37; Luke 13:34

[4]Matthew 26:39

[5]John 11:33-35

[6]Matthew 27:46, citing Psalm 22:1

[7]Howell, ibid., p.64

[8]Psalm 80:7-8,14-15,17-19

Behold, I prepare the way!

“Behold, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me … “ (Malachi 3:1).

It was the day after my birthday at the end of October, that the tree arrived. Much earlier than I expected all the way from Idaho. But I wanted to make sure this artificial tree, which was billed as the most realistic Balsam Fir on the market, would get all the way to Canada during a postal strike in time to decorate. The end of October was much too early for me, but at least you might say I was preparing well. Or, so I thought.

Meaning, I was getting things done early. I was on top of all the planning and busy preparations. In so doing, I was convincing myself that I was doing the preparation that Advent calls for.

Well, it’s the 2nd Sunday in Advent and the tree is still not decorated. In fact half of it does not light up. For all of November and almost half of December, I have sat in my chair in our living room, looking at an empty tree waiting for the replacement part to arrive. According to tracking, it’s supposed to arrive tomorrow. Pray for me.

It hasn’t been easy sitting there throughout this time looking at a tree that was supposed to be perfect but wasn’t. It was broken. It hasn’t been easy looking every day at that tree that was supposed to be decorated and functioning perfectly already but wasn’t. It hasn’t been easy talking on the phone umpteen times with the company about what was wrong with the wiring. It hasn’t been easy waiting for things to happen that should already have. It hasn’t been easy looking at what has become a symbol not of my good intentions, my industrious, conscientious hard work paid off; but, instead, a symbol of imperfection, failure and frustration.

One of the messages of Advent is that we must prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and in this world. How, then, are we to prepare for the Lord’s coming? How are we to prepare, if not just upping our efforts at getting stuff done—the more efficient the better, the faster the better?

In several scriptures assigned for Advent, we encounter a unique word: “Behold!” Today, the command is to behold, my messenger comes to prepare the way. I prefer this old English translation in the King James Version which preserves an important nuance of this biblical command to behold. This is very similar to the behold from last week, from the prophet Jeremiah, commanding us to behold that the days are coming when God will fulfill God’s promises. (1) In other words, God is about to do something.

At least in today’s reading from the Hebrew scripture, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) opens with the more common, “See!” But we can work with that! In fact, that is not bad. When Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father”, Jesus responds, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” (2) Throughout the Gospels, the message is that in Jesus, we see God.

But, really see. That’s why ‘behold’ is better. Not just ‘look at.’ Not just a sidelong glance. Not just looking at someone askance, in passing. Not just the surface of how he looks. But to perceive Jesus, to look into the heart of the Lord. To ‘behold’ God. To be in and contemplate the presence of the One who comes to us. The One we cannot fully understand.

God is about to do something. When? Where? How? So, behold God—the One we cannot fully understand who comes nevertheless. Behold the mystery.

The story shared with me was of a lonely widower who was told by his friends that he ought to get a dog. So he goes to a pet shop to see what’s available.

“Have you ever owned a dog before?” the saleswoman asks.

“No.”

“Are you prepared to take it out for a walk two or three times a day?”

“I hadn’t really thought of that. I just wanted a little companionship.”

“That companionship requires something from you, no?” the saleswoman mused out loud.

“Listen,” she broke the awkward silence between them, “if you really want companionship, I’ll show you a talking centipede for about the same price.”

“You must be joking.”

“No, I’m serious, and what’s more, this little guy can even sing.” She leads the customer to a miniature house, and in front of it, in a barely visible lawn chair, is the centipede. Turning to the tiny creature, she says, “Would you say something for this man so he’ll know you can talk?”

“Okay,” says the centipede in a very soft voice. “What would you like me to say?”

“That’s fine,” says the saleswoman. “And can you show him your singing voice?”

“Of course,” says the centipede, who breaks into a barely audible rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

The man can’t believe it. He buys the centipede and the tiny house and brings them home.

Later that day, he calls out, “I’m going for a coffee and I’d love to introduce you to my friends at Tim Hortons. Would you like to come along?”

The centipede does not answer. He repeats the questions, and again there’s no answer.

He decides to ask one more time. He goes right up to the little house and says in a loud voice, “For the last time, I’m going out for a coffee. Would you like to come along?”

“I heard you the first time,” quietly says the centipede. “I’m just putting on my boots.”

Beholding God requires something of us. It calls us to get in sync with where God likely is and how God tends to work. We are called to interface with the presence of God. Admittedly, this is challenging for us because, as one Japanese theologian remarked, God, like the centipede, is going three miles an hour. (3)  How fast are we going?

The refining fire of growth and change is not waiting for us to feel good about it. This Advent, we are simply called to behold the mystery of God’s ways and respond from the heart to the truth of how God is revealed to us. And trust, that in God’s time and ways, all that’s good will come to pass in our lives and in this world.

It might be counterintuitive but a better way to prepare during this season might very well be to slow down and be silent more. To listen for what God is already whispering into your own soul. And to see what God is already doing all around you.

I’m not saying that preparing is not a good thing to do. But, inevitably, times come in life when no amount of preparation can prepare you for what you must endure. So, you wait.

And, in the waiting, you may find some time to acknowledge what is missing in your soul—“your longing desires, your deepest needs, the questions where you don’t, yet, have answers.” (4)

And, then, pray in the awareness that God knows. And, in the end, it is not my or your preparation that is the most important during this time of Advent, but God’s. God is already preparing your soul for its healing and wholeness once again.

“Behold! I am about to do a new thing,” God says. “Do you not see it?” (5)

  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16
  2. John 14:8-9
  3. Kosuke Koyama, “Three Mile An Hour God” (SCM Press, 2015)
  4. Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE) “Longing – Brother, Give Us A Word” (3 December 2018), http://www.ssje.org
  5. Isaiah 43:19

Postscript: On December 13, the part finally arrived! And, it seems to work. Well worth the wait!

“Behold!”

“Behold!” is an old English word that appears often in some English translations of the Bible. It is not a word that commands belief, per se. Neither is it a word that merely wants to catch your passing attention. Rather, “Behold!” invites—even compels—the listener to perceive deeply the truth of what God is doing.

To consider and contemplate what God is doing in your life and in the world at this dark time of year, we need to slow down and maybe even stop. We need to breathe and recognize what God is already doing. From our heartfelt thanks comes a generous response towards others in need, for the grace of God. This is the best preparation for Christmas!

In sermons during the last weeks before Christmas, we will consider the meaning of three “Behold!” commands from scripture: 1) Behold, I prepare the way! 2) Behold, I bring joy! 3) Behold, your servant!

Consider these scriptures in your Advent reading: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:10.

I look forward to reflecting with you during this holy season.

Blessings, and Peace,

Martin

Pizza, sushi, pigs-in-a-blanket: It all matters

It’s an odd beginning.[1] You’d wonder why, if Matthew and Luke – and to some extent even John – begin with stories of Jesus’ birth, Mark starts his Gospel rather abruptly. And by reference to the Hebrew prophets of old.

During this Advent season as we prepare for and wait for God’s coming at Christmas, the Gospel text for today feels out of place. It shakes us out of our sentimental leanings and Hallmark expectations of pleasant Christmassy stories.

One of my favourite children’s exercises is finding the pattern in a row of numbers, words, pictures – and identifying which part doesn’t fit. Preparing a way in the dusty heat of the Judean desert by referring to Isaiah is a no-brainer for finding what doesn’t fit if we would line up and compare the first chapters of each of the four Gospels.

Compared to wordy John, for example, Mark is the master of brevity. The earliest of all four Gospels in the New Testament, Mark tells the story of Jesus by getting to the point. He appeals to our contemporary need to summarize concisely. Mark is short – only 16 chapters compared to Matthew’s 28, Luke’s 24 and John’s 21. In our digital video age where sound and video bytes must capture our attention in less than 15 second ads, Mark is the go-to Gospel. If you’ve got the time.

He opens by simply getting to the point: Jesus is the Son of God. And it’s good news. Amen. We’d go hear his sermons.

Unlike Matthew, Mark leaves out the juicy, vitriolic speech John the Baptist gives slicing up the Pharisees calling them a brood of vipers.[2] Instead, in a few short verses, Mark simply tells his audience that John the Baptist comes to herald Jesus’ coming. That’s John the Baptist’s only role: To announce and prepare the way of the Lord. Period. Next question.

Our three confirmands this year and their families have decided to meet in each other’s home once a month. Taking turns to host, each decides then what we will eat for supper. The first month it was pizza, perhaps no surprise there. The second month was sushi. And the third month we met this Fall, it was crescent pigs in a blanket. Pizza, sushi and pigs in a blanket.

Same group of kids and parents. Different culinary expressions. And I wondered how well this group found unity despite our differences. The detailed differences mark important aspects of our identity and perspectives on life. And yet, there we were, eating together and talking about God.

Which is why we must stop, pause and ponder Mark’s inclusion of certain details. If Mark wants to be brief and just tell the basic point, then why does he include what John the Baptist is wearing and what his diet is? There must be something very important about locusts, wild honey and camel’s hair.

I find a few good reasons for including only those details. First, Mark makes the connection between John the Baptist and prophets of old. We see, through these details that John the Baptist stands in line with Isaiah by citing his work.[3] John the Baptist is also mistaken for Elijah because of their similar attire,[4] and because he, like it is recorded in the other Gospels, foretells of the coming Messiah.[5]

Mark wants to be brief, but he also wants to add just enough detail to make those connections. Not only is this good writing, he conveys that it all matters. Not just the principles, the higher meanings, the abstract thoughts, the arguments, the beliefs. Material matters too. The locusts and wild honey that he eats, the camel hair that he wears – these all mediate God’s intent and message.

We can learn from Mark that “spiritual talk is always, in the Gospel, tied to material — real water, real bread, real time, inexpensive wine, locusts, honey, sand, camel’s hair, wind, birds and the clouds being rent asunder. This is the nitty-gritty of life, and it can never be separated from matters of the Spirit.”[6]

Because there is “nothing in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”[7], then everything can mediate that love. There is nothing in all of creation that cannot communicate God’s goodness. All perspectives, all things, everyone – it all matters!

Those that created this library that we call “the Bible” in the fourth century could have tried to summarize the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – into one definitive, authoritative account. No variations. No differences. No discrepancies.

No need to ask questions like: Was it the feeding of the 5000 or 4000? Were there two or was there just one angel in the empty tomb to speak to the disciples? Why does the Gospel of John contain stories not recorded in Matthew and Luke? One compilation would be enough, one that gets right the chronology of all the events, teaching and parables of Jesus. It would have made life easier!

But the wisdom of our forebears in the faith would keep the variations intact. Four similar yet different accounts were included in the New Testament. The diverse expressions and witnesses of Jesus Christ and his birth, life, teaching, healing, death, resurrection and ascension emerge as a critical element of faith.

In reflecting on the unitive diversity of Christian faith in the Bible, Richard Rohr wrote earlier this week in his daily meditation: “Scripture gathers together cumulative visions of the divine.”[8] Diversity is essential to who we are. It all matters.

It all matters because there is something good in everything. Everything in creation is just that: Created by God. And if everything was and is created by God, then despite the consequences of human misdeeds and the stain of sin in creation, despite all the religious and political differences in the world, there is still something redeemable and inherently good in this brokenness of creation. Including in us. This is the hope of Christian faith.

The Christmas season is a time when traditional gatherings occur in families, communities, friendship groups, and workplace teams. It would be too easy, and lazy on our part, to be dismissive and rush to make judgements of family members and co-workers with whom we differ. Some hesitate and complain about attending these gatherings because we can’t stand “grumpy uncle Stan” or “flakey aunty Molly”.

But even “grumpy uncle Stan” and “flakey aunty Molly” are beloved of God. There is something good about them. Will we take the time and effort to help make a safe place for them to express their true selves created in the image of God?

Richard Rohr has made many enemies in the Christian church for his provocative and progressive views. He has been a voice crying out in the wilderness for several decades now. And over all this time, he maintains that in conversation with those who differ from him, he follows a simple rule:

There is always at least ten percent of what he hears in their point of view that he can agree with. And it’s from that common ten percent that he begins his response to them.[9]

That calls for some work. And persistence. Because building relationships with those from whom we differ is not accomplished in one meeting, overnight, or after one phone conversation. It’s not easy work. It can take a life time.

It’s easier to give up and walk away. It’s easier to justify some narrative that paints them as evil or not worth spending any time with. The sad consequence of following this easy way we see in the world today.

We pray for peace on earth this Christmas season, as with the angels of old. The way of peace is to have hope. To have hope is to live into that which God calls us into being. And that hope requires us to take the narrow path.[10] To have hope is to work hard at practicing good listening skills. Hope requires us to work hard at not speaking first, but first asking questions and hearing the other. That hope requires us to work hard at listening with the aim of seeking understanding, to try to see things from the perspective of the other.

This doesn’t mean we will agree with the other. This doesn’t mean we will lose our integrity or that which defines us as Christians and as individuals. But it does lead us to a way of being with the other that honours them and respects them as beloved creatures of God.

We will continue eating together as a confirmation class into the new year. I look forward to the different culinary tastes that await. And what is better, I know the young women in the confirmation class are looking forward to this as well.

Hope.

[1] The Gospel for Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8

[2] Matthew 3:7

[3] Isaiah 40:3

[4] 2 Kings 1:8

[5] John 1:21-23

[6] I wrote in my post from January 2015, “Borderland Spirituality”

[7] Romans 8:38-39

[8] December 4, 2017

[9] Richard Rohr, “The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis” (Boulder Colorado: Sounds True Audio CD Learning Course, 2010).

[10] Matthew 7:13-14; Luke 13:24

The apple of the eye

Guard me as the apple of the eye; Hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8)

Last week’s children’s chat got me thinking even more. I told the story of ‘that mom’ who carried with her everywhere the biggest purse you could imagine. Everywhere she went her two young children trundled behind. And everywhere her kids went, so did she.

Mom was prepared for every contingency. When one of the kids fell in the school yard and scraped his knee, out came the bandaids. When the other ripped her shirt sleeve on the sharp edge of the door at school, out came the needle, thread and scissor set. And even though they left in the morning without a cloud in the sky, if by the end of the day rain showers dumped a deluge, out came the rain poncho. She carried everything you ever needed in that purse.

Or so we thought. I asked the kids what else she should have in her purse. “Some snacks, in case they became hungry.” “A flashlight in case the lights went out wherever they were.” etc. etc. So, she didn’t have everything you could imagine they would need. As prepared as she was, Mom wasn’t prepared for everything. She would also have to go by faith.

“Faith in what?” In Advent, the church has traditionally prepared for Jesus’ coming — in the four weeks leading to Christmas. Our faith, it would seem, leaned heavily on our ability, or lack thereof, to be prepared. Have we done everything we could to be purged of our sin? To be purified? Have we repented enough? Done enough penance? Confessed all our sins? And changed our ways? 

Have we done everything we can to be prepared for Christmas? Bought all the presents? Sent out all the cards? Cleaned and decorated the house? Finalized the invitations, menus and schedules?

Are we ever prepared enough? I’ve talked to more and more people over the years saying they are simply not doing everything any more. It’s too much. And they’re not going to worry about if things aren’t just perfect, anymore. I think they’re onto something. Because the truth is, faith-in-us is only (a small) part of the equation.

Would Jesus still come at Christmas even if we were not totally prepared? Of course. Therefore, a significant part of the Advent message is to emphasize that not only do we do what we can ‘to prepare’, we must also receive everything that we experience in life — the good and the bad — as God’s way of preparing us for the coming of the Lord. In the end, the Lord’s coming is not dependent on how well we prepare. Because Jesus is coming anyway, ready or not!

When we appreciate that everything that happens in our lives is God’s way of preparing us, could we not approach life’s circumstances with a heart of faith and trust rather than resentment and despair? When we appreciate the trials and tribulations of life as the way God is, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “refining” and “purifying” (3:1-4) our lives, would we not then have peace?

How can we ‘see’ the Lord’s hand in all the circumstances of life? I think ‘seeing’ is the key. And I’m not speaking merely of the physical ability of seeing. It’s more of a deepened awareness and perception of reality.

The origin of the phrase “apple of the eye” refers to the reflection of oneself that can be seen in another’s pupil. To hold someone as the ‘apple of the eye’, means that they are close enough to the beholder that they could see their own reflection in the beholder’s pupil. As a metaphor for God’s love, this phrase builds on the idea of humankind having been built in God’s image. We are close enough to God that we can see our own reflection in Him, and He in us. (1)

So, the purpose of ‘preparation’ and ‘purification’ goes beyond merely removing the impurities. Apparently, a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete only when you can observe your own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. (2)

If that is the case, the prophet Malachi implies that God’s image in us is restored precisely through the challenges and difficulties of life. Not apart from them. This is the peace we find. The prophet’s message is that we are deemed good and righteous when once again God’s image is reflected in our lives. 

The end point is not the pain or discomfort. We often get stuck there, and give up. The point is God being made manifest in who we are and what we do with our lives. And this takes time. And lots of work. And the gift of faith, to see God always close by. And trust, that whenever I take one step toward God, God takes ten steps toward me.

Questions of purpose, therefore, are important to ask in this season. For many good reasons. Especially when what occupies us in the ‘shopping season’ often distracts us from what is most important in our lives. The prophet is annoyed by the peoples’ wayward practices. How can God’s image be reflected in a selfish, me-first, immediate-gratification motivated people?

Who are we? And who are we called to be? John the Baptist’s cries in the wilderness echo the ancient prophets’ messaging (Luke 3). Stop distracting yourself to death! Return to the source and the ground of your being! Reclaim your true self, your original reflection of God’s goodness in creation.

In a year-end letter from the treasurer of the Eastern Synod to all congregational pastors and treasurers, Keith Myra offers some helpful, universal suggestions around financial issues facing churches today. One of his reminders states: Remember, “The church is not a club — membership does NOT have its privileges.” 

Here, he suggests that especially during this time of year our redemption does not lie in: “What can I get out of life, the church, my family, the economy.” Our redemption does not lie in: “What is in it for me?” And, “It’s up to me!” Rather, the church has always proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, which is about: “What can I first give to others?” “How does my life reflect God’s image to the world?” “What does the life of Jesus call forth from me?”

We are chosen and loved, yes. Even so, in the end God choosing us is not for privilege, but for a purpose. Belonging to God introduces a great purpose and an important mission.
There is a reason for which we are being purified! And it points beyond the warm fuzzies of this holiday season. It points to actions in the world by Christians that communicate God’s love for all — especially to those without hope, without home, without peace. Then, every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill be made low … the rough ways made smotth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:5-6)

Poet Christina Rossetti writes this prayer:
Lord, purge our eyes to see /Within the seed a tree, /Within the glowing egg a bird, /Within the shroud a butterfly, /Till, taught by such we see /Beyond all creatures, Thee /And hearken to Thy tender word /And hear its “Fear not: it is I” (3)

Amen.

(1) Lutherans Connect, “The Trees of Jesse: Day 3” lcadventdevotional2015blogspot.ca
(2) in David L. Bartlett, Barabara Brown Taylor & Kimberly Bracken Long eds. “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.32

(3) Christina Rossetti, from “Judge not according to the appearance”  

God is always up to something

“… you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light” Romans 13:11-12

When the first spell of wintery weather hit last week, I instinctively plugged in the new lawn ornament we purchased for display during the holiday season. Normally, we wait until later in December to light it all up. But with the advent of the storm, and the dissipating daylight by mid-afternoon, I felt I needed a boost of light to distract me from the dark thoughts of coming winter.

We had a family gathering that afternoon. And as family members gazed  out the picture window at the front of our house onto the lawn now covered by a couple inches of snow, they laughed. I didn’t anticipate that this six-foot tall Christmas tree would blink in sequences and bright colours enough to light up the whole yard. “Looks like the Vegas strip now on Ida Street,” I joked, thinking of all the shopping still on my ‘to do’ list and all the things that needed to be done. I felt the shroud of stress envelope my being.

That’s why Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas, may be one of the most difficult seasons for Christians to observe. Most attempts in our culture to cover the darkness, literally and figuratively, only ramp up the anxiety, the fear and even the feelings of isolation that the festive season brings.

And yet, annual celebrations like Christmas are meant to transform our lives for the better. The message of God’s incarnation (Jesus, the Son of God, being born into human flesh) is transformative since now, in faith, we know God has entered our reality and changed forever the fabric of creation.

But how can the stress and incessant activity of the season contribute positively to our well-being, healing and growth? I don’t think it can, unless we give ourselves permission to hold off from fully embracing the joy of Christmas. Holding off may seem counterproductive and counterintuitive. Yet, the wisdom of the ages suggests that in order to see the new thing, we must first be willing to let go of what is not helpful. In other words, there’s some work we first have to do.

The prophet Isaiah announced the new thing which ushered Israel’s return to their homeland around Jerusalem. In order to start on that path, however, they would have to release their attachments to Babylon. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

The Israelites, apparently, had a ‘vision’ problem. They, as the way opened for them to return home, could not visualize such a Godly freedom and transformation of their lives for the good; they could not see God at work making a way out of their problem for them.

This pattern of being blinded to God’s work has repeated throughout the sacred stories of scripture: The same we read when the Israelites, centuries before, escaped bondage in Egypt, but spent decades wandering in the desert to find their “promised land”. Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to the Bishop, quoted on twitter this week the words of Peter Steinke who wrote: “It took one year to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but forty years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. We like familiar patterns” (@RiittaHepomaki).

Perhaps we, too, are like those ancient Israelites. We get stuck in familiar patterns. We limit ourselves, therefore, from seeing what God is up to.

So, we have to practice letting go. This is what liturgical season like Advent, and practices of prayer like Christian Meditation offer to us: Opportunities to contemplate, reflect and surrender those habits of the ego that merely gloss over the darkness of our lives.

How do we let go of fear, isolation, cynicism and defensiveness? How can we lay aside those things that do not, in the end, satisfy? How can we put on that which is good and wholesome?

Well, we first have to embrace the darkness, not circumvent it. God will make a way through the desert, not around it. We need to acknowledge the fear, the defensiveness, the isolation and the cynicism which normally hides the true light from shining. Like a piece of clothing, in order to take it off, we first must get a good grip on it. We need to ‘own’ it in order to cast it away.

This is why Advent is the time for confession, silence, stillness, penitence, waiting and preparation. These weeks leading up to Christmas give us an opportunity to prepare our hearts for the true joy, the true light that always comes into the world — not to get distracted by the glitz and hustle that, in the end, only keep us stuck in those familiar patterns of blindness to the truth.

When we pause to take stock, and honestly confess the truth that we are afraid, that we are defensive, that we are cynical, that we are isolated, etc. — the true light and joy comes not because of anything we can muster up, fabricate, manipulate or engineer. True happiness does not come in me plugging in that blinking Christmas tree on the front lawn — as much as I thought instinctively it might.

True joy comes when we wait for it. In the slowing down, pausing, and calm presence of ourselves, we can see better the gift that comes to us in the moment. Saint Paul seems pretty adamant  in his letter to the Romans to stress that it is “NOW”, in this moment that our salvation has come. It is in the ordinary, commonplace, unspectacular activities of our daily lives that matters most to Christ’s coming to us. Do we not see it?

The story is told of a wise Rabbi who had many students come to him for advice. Once, a younger student came to the Rabbi and asked, “How can we tell when the dawn has arrived? How can we tell the difference between night and day?” It was a good question, the Rabbi acknowledged, since early in the morning the change is not easily perceptible: One moment it is night, the next it is already day — but when is the exact moment when it changes over?

“You know the night is gone, and the day has arrived,” the Rabbi responded, “when the faces of those around you in the dark are no longer mere shadows that all look the same, but when you can finally recognize who that person actually is, standing in front of you, when the light allows it.”

The Light of Christ is coming. God is always up to something good, even in the darkness. Even when we don’t feel like it. Even when the stress amps up for the season. Even when we have difficulty letting go of familiar patterns. God is up to something, always.

So, in the meantime as we struggle to let go, let us learn to wait in the darkness, standing together. And then rejoice, when the light does come to illuminate our way and the gift of those near to us. In Christ.