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Expecting

So how are you coming with your list?? We have a matter of hours to go and you’re either settling into a peaceful anticipation of Christmas or you have ratcheted up the stress level to new heights to pull off the celebration of your dreams. There are signs of the season that come at us from every direction. One place that changes this time of year is our mailbox. It starts with the delivery of slick catalogues even before Thanksgiving arrives. Then the Christmas cards start arriving. It’s the one time of year I look forward to opening up my mailbox! We write a Christmas letter each year—it’s not done yet but it will be soon. One year it became a “Lenten Letter” so I’ve learned not to stress over it. We try to recap the year for those who at least pretend to be interested in our lives! My friend calls these sorts of holiday mailings “brag and gag letters.” We include photographs that show off our best side and tell tales of great accomplishments and proud moments. This same acquaintance threatened to start off her letter one year describing the arrest of her daughter for belligerent and aggressive behavior at home while the other daughter had announced during the course of the year that she had switched from Christian beliefs to pagan tendencies. Now that’s the kind of letter that can either make you laugh because of its stark honesty or drain the joy right out of your holiday! Of course it’s no longer just at Christmas that we are subjected to the perfect portrayals of peoples’ lives. With the ubiquitous presence of selfies we have the potential to feel lousy about our own lives every day of the year as people upload photo after photo of winsome smiles in enviable locations. Our expectations for Christmas are peace and joy but sometimes it feels like pageantry of the perfect!

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So perhaps, on this Sunday that is just two days before the big occasion, we need to sit with Mary and Elizabeth for a while. There is a simple beauty to these two women, both expecting babies in unexpected ways! Elizabeth is past the child-bearing age and is childless. But God has blessed her and her priest-husband, Zechariah, with a pregnancy and a promised baby boy. Mary’s pregnancy—well, we know about that story. We’re just thankful that Joseph believed the dreams God gave him that 1) reassured him that Mary had not been unfaithful to him and, 2) urged the two of them needed to settle into this pregnancy with great anticipation. In the meeting of these two women in the remote Judean hill country, we see God working in deeply personal ways that promise to shake up the world!

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We don’t know what prompted Mary to travel to see her older relative after the annunciation by the angel Gabriel. She was told that Elizabeth was expecting in her old age and that may have been enough to coax her out of town. It’s also possible that Mary needed to get out of Dodge to avoid the stigma that would certainly come her way as her belly bloated before there hadn’t been a wedding. Whatever the cause, Mary’s arrival provides confirmation to Elizabeth that the Holy Spirit is at work. Her husband had been muted when he doubted the angelic announcement that his wife would have a child. So Elizabeth wasn’t able to hear about his holy encounter. Shut off from conversation with each other, Elizabeth must have pondered her pregnancy. When Mary arrives God gives confirmation through leaps in the womb that this baby is special. Elizabeth met God in those kicks and she, the wife of the silenced preacher, became the prophet. She pronounced the importance of these two babies who were linked by DNA but, more importantly, in holy purpose. Mary’s arrival at Elizabeth’s home confirmed to both that the Spirit was at work.
Mary had this remarkable encounter with the angel Gabriel, announcing to her that she would become pregnant with a child who was of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph feared God—respected God’s great power. Yet Mary is unafraid. There is this paradox in the Christian faith that insists that we fear, respect, stand in awe of God’s majesty and might. But, when we encounter God in visions, dreams, through the words of trusted friends or in unsolicited thoughts that bring our attention to God, we experience God as merciful. Rather than being wrathful, Mary meets the God who has patiently led a stubborn people for thousands of years! Rather than meting out justice, God offers forgiveness. Mary empties herself to make room for the Messiah. Rather than chasing around after the next ten things on our list, Mary models for us the need to rest in God’s presence and promise.
After Elizabeth prophesies in the power of the Holy Spirit about these leaping babies, Mary sings a song for all generations. The words to her prophecy foretell a reversal of the order of things in our earthly lives. Charles Campbell states that her song “invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imaginations.” Have we settled for realistic expectations? Have we given up on stepping out in faith to follow the leading of our God? Mary’s revolutionary words almost sound like a protest song of the sixties. But there is no anger in this young woman’s voice that cuts through the dark. She assures generations to come that Jesus’ arrival announces good news to the down-trodden and judgment for those who have replaced God with self. Charles Campbell writes, “In the women’s actions, the world is indeed turned upside down. Hierarchies are subverted. The mighty are brought down. Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.”

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This story is about two women who were expecting. But their pregnancies pushed them beyond the boundaries of their safe expectations for how their lives would play out. God brings them together to provide them the community they lack. They needed each others’ support. Their meeting revealed that God was powerfully at work in the forming of these infants. They were ordinary women of faith, ready to love the child God sent them, and to raise them to fulfill God’s plan for them. In humble Mary and Elizabeth, who were expecting something far beyond their wildest expectations, we encounter God’s upheaval to the comfortable status quo.
Like these two Biblical women who humbly lived the faith 2000 years ago, we are marginal people. That’s good news, actually. We may think that we are super important people because our lists are long this time of year and we are putting miles on our cars with errands and outings. But the drama of the world doesn’t hinge on our actions today. We are able to—and, more importantly, called to—listen and wait for God to break into our mundane routine. Mary and Elizabeth model for us, just two days before Christmas, what our focus must be. We must expect for God to show up and turn our carefully scripted plans upside down. We saw God in the faces of those who received our gifts yesterday at a nearby mobile home park. We expect to hear God in the voice of the difficult relative who always sits around our table at the holidays. We expect to sense Christ’s presence through the words of our church friends. Michael Bennett stated that, “Congregants need to sit for a while with a people—and a God—who will accept them as they are, not as they feel expected to be.” That’s what is available to you each Sunday! You don’t need to come in to worship with picture-perfect smiles and all the details to your lives in perfect order. You are invited to come as you are, with a spirit open to God’s presence. There’s no room in Advent for numb imagination and realistic expectations. Don’t come into worship unless you embrace an expectation to be changed! As Mary and Elizabeth discovered, God is at work! Anything is possible! Jesus is near.

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O Key of David

On December 20 I had the opportunity to preach at the Dominican Center at Marywood. They observe the tradition of the “O Antiphons” in the days that lead up to Christmas. Antiphons are names for Jesus from the Old Testament prophets. These evening services go back perhaps as early as the 6th century and were firmly in place by the 8th century. My passage was one I didn’t remember reading before and certainly had not much pondered. The title for Christ I was given was Key of David. Here’s what I offered to those gathered in the beauty of the chapel at Marywood.

A Reading from the Prophet Isaiah Is. 22:22-25
I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. I will fix him as a peg in a firm place, a seat of honor for his ancestral house; On him shall hang all the glory of his ancestral house: descendants and offspring, all the little vessels, from bowls to jars. On that day, says the LORD of hosts, the peg fixed in a firm place shall give way, break off and fall, and the weight that hung on it shall be done away with; for the LORD has spoken.
THE WORD OF GOD.

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O brother. Oh my goodness. Oh dear! Oh baby! Oh no! Oh, for heaven’s sake. O LORD God. O Antiphons. Oh.
I learned that the “O” in “O Antiphons” is called a vocative particle. Who knew? Not me! A vocative is a word that let’s you know that you are being spoken to directly. It’s also an exclamative—to precede a word or expression with the word “O” turns it into an exclamation, more than just a statement of fact. The scriptures for December 20 directly address each one of us as we turn to one of the titles for Jesus: O Key of David.

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Have you even been entrusted with the key to someone’s house? Did your boss present you with a key to the business at some point, knowing that you wouldn’t abuse that privilege? We joke about how many people have a key to our church building for a variety of reasons. One woman who never slept very well would make her way down to the church in the middle of the night when wrestling with the weight of the world. She quietly prayed in the sanctuary. My only clue that she had been there was if I noticed that the big Bible beneath the cross had been opened to a new psalm, prophetic utterance or gospel reading. To be given a key is a privilege, a responsibility. It indicates that the key-holder has some authority and power. That makes janitors some of the most powerful people in the land! Have you ever felt how heavy their key rings are?

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah about a very important key—it gives access to the beloved King David. This key determines who will get an audience with the king! It ushers the bearer into the very presence of Royalty. In Isaiah’s time the Hebrew King was chosen and anointed by God. So this is not someone elected by popular vote of the people. The Key of David brings us before the throne of God’s Savior! Now that’s some privilege! O mercy me!
When we put this passage in context we see that it involves two men with authority, Shebna and Eliakim. The two are portrayed so differently that they almost become caricatures. From Isaiah 3:3 and 2 Kings 18:18, we learn that Eliakim is in charge of the palace. This pair of men represent varied forms of leadership and politics. Oh boy! Shebna was arrogant. He was overseeing a sort of public works project: the building a grand and glorious tomb for himself hewn out of rock. He abused public funds to ensure that his name would live on in memory long after he was gone. He reeked of vanity and made plans independent of God.
In comparison Eliakim was almost too good to be true. He set a high mark for the role and behavior of a trusted ruler, one anointed by God. The authority that had belonged to Shebna would be given to Eliakim and he would use it as a father uses his power over his son or daughter: with love and wisdom. He would not seek to preserve his own memory but would be given honor for the way that he led out of a love for and commitment to God. This change of leadership would bring about stability and security for Jerusalem.
Often we hand off a task to those who are already managing other chores. When we find a reliable, hard-working person, we hang more responsibilities on them. They perform admirably—until there is a breaking point. This was the case with Eliakim. He was a politician who first conferred with God to determine his course of action. He was a peg in a firm place and all the glory of the House of David would be draped upon him: descendants and possessions, generations worth of things. This was a great blessing but also an increasingly heavy burden. One of the commentators stated, “No human can bear what is meant to be rolled onto the LORD.” So Isaiah prophesies that the balance would shift at some point and the peg that had been so firmly in place would break because of the weight upon it. The responsibilities that had been suspended from that hook would fall to the ground in a heap. Oh my goodness.

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So what does it mean to be an Eliakim rather than a Shebna? To emulate Eliakim we stop sitting on our hands and begin to reach out in service. We don’t worry about how we look to others or what our image is in the mirror. We see ourselves through the eyes of God and reflect the Divine image to those around us. It is this Holy Presence that we know through the Son of God that equips us for all holy labors. John Oswalt, in the NIV Application Commentary reminds us, “Even in a broken body, our spiritual health may be radiant and robust, in spite of our carrying impossible loads. If we have learned how to carry those loads to the Master, and leave them there, we will not be broken by what we are called to shoulder for the sake of others.” Oh glory!
In this Advent season, as in our very lives, we have waited for Jesus. We have yearned for His presence, His power and equipping. We have run toward Him so that we can drop our load at His feet. In these long nights we have waited for His Light for what seems like an eternity. We echo the words from Isaiah and cry out in the darkness, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down—to make your name known.” Through the quiet beauty of the O Antiphons we hear the promise of Jesus assuring us, “Tomorrow I will come…”

Oh my God! Glory be! Amen.

 

 

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Peace

Perhaps you saw the movie, Wild, which starred Reese Witherspoon in a 2014 film. It was based on a book written by Cheryl Strayed, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon. Cheryl based the story on a time when she lost her mother and was extricating herself from her marriage. Turning to destructive behaviors, including heroin use, she decided to channel her personal turmoil into a physical journey. With no previous hiking experience, she set out to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert up to the Bridge of the Gods in the state of Washington. The movie offers flashbacks into earlier portions of Strayed’s life that illuminate her present angst. In the course of her 1,100 mile solo hike through deserted terrain, Strayed faces her demons and arrives at the Bridge of the Gods ready to cross into a new life with a hard-earned peace.

We like these sorts of stories, don’t we? It starts young with stories like Cinderella, the girl charged with sweeping the cinders of the fire. Yet she becomes the princess of the most eligible bachelor in the land. We hunger to see wilderness areas become lush with flowers and streams. On the second Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Peace. What makes for peace? On the First Sunday in Advent I invited the congregation to write down on a slip of paper what they were waiting for this Advent season. Out of 55 sticky notes deposited in the offering plate, 24 individuals expressed the desire for some sort of peace. The second place answer falls from 24 answers for peace to 5 wishes for a just government and global responsibility. A hope for joy brought in four votes—three of those naming joy that we find in the context of family. Four people penned a desire for healing: for grampa to get better and for the miracle of speech for an autistic grandson. Three people yearned for God’s love–an acceptance of one another. Work and employment needs weighed on the hearts of two people. Two other people simply wrote the word, “Patience” on their paper. The remaining answers from individuals were clarity, truthfulness, humility rather than selfishness and better communication. What an insight into the hearts of our congregation these sticky notes provided! However the yearning for Peace won by a landslide!

One person practically wrote the script for Wild and other similar hardship stories with their answer. On their small piece of paper they expressed the desire to get out of the quick sand; to know their place and use their gifts for God and the Church; and to know their journey. Which path should they take?

How many of us can relate to that at some point in our lives? It boils down to a prayer of Rescue me, Use me, and Guide me.

Amen. Truth told. Sermon given!

Another person wrote that they are waiting for a child. Two words on a slip of paper that speak volumes. We gather in our sanctuaries each week carrying in with us hopes and dreams and sometimes battling despair. Some requests we dare to speak aloud in the context of worship. Others are buried so deep in our hearts that we sometimes forget what it is that we most desire.

What are you waiting for in this Advent season?

The Bible texts chosen for this time of year often speak words of warning. We’re focused on Christmas gifts and parties and decorations. Who needs warning? While in England my sister noticed the packaging of Sterling cigarettes. On all but one panel of the box, words of dire warning are printed. Clearly the British government has mandated that producers of cigarettes warn the consumers that what they are buying could well hurt their health. Sterling cigarettes did not disappoint! Each time you light up you would see the image of this poor man who appears to be on his death bed and subtle messages like SMOKING KILLS: QUIT NOW! But folks buy these and smoke them in spite of the government-mandated truth-telling. It’s easy to look past what we don’t want to see. Maybe that’s why those who put the lectionary readings together put these passages in front of us as we begin a new church calendar and our spirits are merry and bright. WARNING: YOU MIGHT JUST MISS THE WHOLE POINT OF CHRIST’S BIRTH IF YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE WRONG THINGS.

The lectionary text for the second Sunday in Advent is Luke 1: 67-80. It brings us into the presence of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Earlier in the story we learn that he loses his voice because he doubted an angel’s promise. It was an absurd promise—he’d be a fool to believe it. The angel tells him his elderly wife is going to have a baby. He leaves the temple after his time of service and returns home to his wife, who had long ceased hoping for a child. Before long she is, indeed, pregnant and Zechariah is still muted in this gestational chapter of their geriatric lives. It isn’t until the child is born—a boy, as the angel had promised—that Zechariah’s speech is restored. So what does he have to say after nine months of silence? He preaches a sermon! He becomes a prophet who speaks in the power of the Holy Spirit. God’s voice had been absent for 400 years leading up to Jesus. No prophets or prophecies. No miracles. The yearning of the Jews for a reappearance of their God had deepened. So, as Zechariah emerges from the wilderness of being word-less, he breaks God’s silence with words of prophecy.

I like to play a game when reading scripture and that is “Find the verbs.” If you look at this sermon that old Zechariah preached, notice the verbs: Looked favorably upon, redeemed, raised up, spoke through prophets, remembered the covenant, rescued. The power of God’s Holy Spirit has broken into the world again and the awe-struck father of a tiny boy prophesies that things are about to change. The wilderness is ready to bloom!

Part II of his sermon moves toward his little boy. He will become a prophet of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. Remember what comes along with the job description of being a prophet: rejection, shunning, physical harm sometimes. Have you told your kids or grandkids that you hope they will become a prophet when they grow up? That you hope they will preach against the evils of their time, even stating the truth before leaders who will take offence? Probably not! Zechariah knows, in the power of the Holy Spirit, that his boy will somehow prepare the way for God’s anointed One. He will do it in such a way that folks will newly understand the salvation that God offers them. It comes in an unlikely way—not through memorization of scripture or performing a certain number of good deeds or because they have articulated a particularly beautiful prayer. Their salvation comes through forgiveness of sin!

Have you ever spent time in the wilderness of guilt, the desert of inadequacy, the forsaken land of regret? We can waste our lives stuck in these places! John the Baptist came to prepare the way for God’s Messiah who offers us forgiveness. After 400 years of God’s absence, Preacher Zechariah speaks of God’s tender mercy—not warnings of judgment! These people knew that they had strayed from God. They understood why God had left them to their own stubborn devices for four centuries. They had ignored the warning of the prophets for hundreds of years! The last thing they expected was for God to show up with mercy that dispels the darkness and brings about the dawn of a glorious new day. Zechariah prophesies that history is about to be rerouted and the path we are on will lead, not to our destruction or continued remorse over bad decisions; not to further wandering with no sense of direction. No! The presence of Zechariah’s God will guide OUR feet, all y’all’s feet, into the way of peace.

24 out of 55 answers expressed a desire for some sort of peace. These are a few of the prayers: National peace and compassion and morality. Peace around the world. I pray for peace, for people’s tolerance and understanding of each other. Waiting for stories of peace and love to be told on the news. Peace deep in my soul. Moments of stillness and reflection.

In Luke 3, beginning at verse 4. Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah who foreshadows the arrival of a messenger who will prepare the way of God’s Savior. It will be hard work. Have you ever had to clear rocks from a field to prepare it for planting? Were you assigned to weed a garden? Did you lay pavers in your yard to create a path? Then you will appreciate how hard the job description was for John! He was sent ahead of Jesus to make the paths through the wilderness straight, to fill in the valleys and bring down the mountains. This is commanded long before backhoes could do this sort of back-breaking labor! Crooked ways will be made straight and rough places smooth. All who travel upon these newly paved roads (that part of an election campaign promise in our state recently!) will arrive at the same place: a vantage point of clarity, a vista that showcases that God is present and offering salvation to our world. Wow! Imagine how Zechariah and Elizabeth must have unpacked that sermon?!

The end of Zechariah’s sermon ends with a post-script that is succinct and startling: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

No stories about his first steps, his first word, blowing out the birthday candles or celebrating his bar mitzvah. Holy Spirit. Wilderness. Public ministry. That’s John’s life, in a nutshell. I suspect old Zechariah and Elizabeth had many sleepless nights worrying about their precious boy.

It is perhaps instructive to us that John’s preparation for his prophetic work took place in the wilderness. That was Jesus’ seminary setting as well! John the Baptist and the Son of God are not spared wilderness experiences in life. In fact, God intentionally sends them to wilderness camp trusting that, in that harsh setting, they will discover who and what they can rely on and who or what will let them down. The necessary training grounds for facing our hardships with holiness is a parched land devoid of distractions. Much as we seek to avoid wilderness chapters to our lives, it is in the trenches that we are most apt to experience God’s rescuing. How can God redeem, restore, save, forgive, liberate, and show mercy to us if we’ve never had to struggle? God sent John to pave the way for Jesus who would show us the way of peace.

Their earthly reward? John’s head ended up on a platter presented whimsically to Herod’s wife. We can only hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth had died before their beloved son met his end in this way. And Jesus? His earthly story ends badly as well—on a cross, crucified as a common criminal like a public lynching. So how does this lead our feet into the way of peace? Who would choose to enter into the wilderness if this is where it dumps us off?

The story that we read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a story of God’s love for us. The story is much greater than John the Baptist, even though he fulfilled his job description honorably. It’s even bigger than the human Jesus. Through Christ’s bodily death God’s power to bring life out of death was showcased. Sacrifice precedes peace. Working for peace takes….work! It’s a holy task that often plants us in a desolate area. No one is exempt from wilderness time. But if we invite God into those hardships, we can expect a word of hope to break forth. One person wrote on their slip of paper that they are waiting for a new beginning. Another said they were hoping for peace, a ray of it in the world and a light of it in my family. A life of faith will teach us that striving peace may require great sacrifice of us. But we discover that we’re in good company. We are thrilled when we see how much more we can accomplish when we work alongside of others who imitate God’s grace. In looking back at our lives we want to be able to say that we didn’t ignore the warnings, that we didn’t wait around for others to do the work, that we would never eliminate the wilderness moments because those are the crucible in which we do our most important work. Those are the steps that lead into the way of peace. Is that what you’re waiting for this Advent season? Amen.

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Feed My Soul

While visiting Edinburgh, Scotland this past summer four of us sisters stayed on the Royal Mile while doing our genealogical explorations. Three of us stayed at the Grassmarket Hotel, an area historically named for its past as a marketplace that sold cattle and other goods. It was also the chosen spot for public hangings in the 17th and 18th centuries for early Scots Presbyterians called Covenanters. A pub near our modest hotel was named for a young woman, Maggie Dickson, who was hanged in in the square in 1724. To escape the humiliation of raising an illegitimate child, she killed her newborn infant and was hanged for it. She is remembered, however, because she resuscitated in the wagon when her body was being carted off to be buried! The astounded local officials determined that she had endured her punishment. She had been hanged. They just didn’t expect her to revive! So she was allowed to live out the remainder of her days. She lives on in legend as “half-hangit Maggie” who was regarded with some awe by the townsfolk who grew old alongside of her! A popular area for housing weary travelers like ourselves, Dorothy Wordsworth gave this report of Grassmarket Square in 1791: “Not noisy and tolerably cheap.”

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Three of us stayed at the Grassmarket Square with its ignominious history while another sister, the last to sign on for the summer adventure, lined up a lovely room at the local Radisson. We swung by her hotel each morning as mere peasants, looking in on a glorious lobby. The first morning she came out and showed us the “Do Not Disturb” sign provided for use in her room. They used different words to keep the cleaning crew and other unwanted visitors at bay. The door tag says, “Feed My Soul.” The pauper status of the other three of us was confirmed with this Radisson grand expression for “Leave Me Alone!”

Feed my soul. That just makes me want to sigh! Isn’t that the prayer on our hearts in this busy season of the year? Isn’t that our request of God when the troubles of our world seem overwhelming? What a different message that gives from “Do Not Disturb.” This is often our message of choice: Leave me alone! No solicitation! I’m busy. I’ve got enough on my own plate so don’t bother me to help with your troubles. Do not disturb!

But we will be disturbed in Advent! The lectionary Gospel passage for the first Sunday in Advent is from Luke 21. This is the last chapter in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is still teaching. Chapter 22 begins with Judas’ betrayal and moves quickly into the Last Supper. Jesus wants His disciples to understand that a final time will come when the whole world will be in turmoil. Terror will be the reaction to the events surrounding them and the Son of Man, an Old Testament title Jesus used for Himself, would descend from heaven to mete out justice. Jesus warned against lethargy and drunkenness. He urged His followers to be on high alert, to watch the signs of the times to know when the traditional rhythms to our earthly life were going to be disturbed. In Advent, as we await the birth of the Messiah, we are reminded that we need to be READY for His arrival.

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For 2000 years folks have tried to pin down the end of this era. Predictions have been made, communities of believers have camped out in full-readiness mode and those times have come and gone with no ultimate divine intervention. People have had good reason in every  age to think that the end is near based on the descriptions in the Bible: international aggression, natural disasters, solar and lunar eclipses, enmity between people and toward God. We certainly can fill in the blanks with our world today. We grieve over our southern border as tear gas and armed troops are used to stand guard between two countries. Small children and young parents run for protection. We look away from those images but find that we are looking at the next news report of entire towns wiped off the map from fires. Hundreds are unaccounted for and others have tales of terror, trying to escape what they describe as apocalyptic burning. Alaskans pick up from a frightening earthquake. Our military patrol puts their lives on the line by entering into generational hatred in the Middle East. Tensions mount as talks with Russia dissolve. Home-bred terrorism leads us to put safety policies in place at schools and other public places. We now lock our church doors during the week in response to the signs of our times. As Christmas approaches we spend money we don’t have for presents we don’t need all in search of a moment of peace. We don’t want to be disturbed but, in Advent, we will be. Jesus urged His disciples to be watchful and prayerful so that we are ready for what each new day will bring. We may think that our message is “Do not disturb” but our deeper prayer is “Feed my soul.” I beg of you Jesus, feed my soul.

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Mary and Joseph watched for the signs of God’s presence. Mary’s illegitimate pregnancy challenged both of them. They could have easily responded to this life-threatening circumstance by telling God, “Do not disturb us! We have a good life ahead of us. We love each other. We love YOU so let’s keep things just as they are.” But they don’t say this. Joseph reacts in an understandable way to the news of Mary’s pregnancy: he plans to quietly divorce her. He could have brought her before the religious authorities and had her stoned to death for infidelity. He was a man of faith and looked for the most peaceful resolution to the dilemma. But God disturbed his sleep and directed him through a dream to marry his fiancée, accepting that this child was of God. Joseph’s soul was fed and he became obedient to God’s will at great cost to himself and to Mary. The tyranny of Roman rule melted away as they held this precious child in their arms when a barn became their delivery room in Bethlehem. The earthly father of Jesus wasn’t given a speaking part in the Bible but we’re still talking about his righteousness today.

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I remember a conversation with the father of an autistic girl who was severely handicapped. She was almost 20 but would be forever frozen developmentally at about age three. Her parents felt the need to transition her from living at home to living in a long-term care facility so that she would be well-situated when they were no longer able to care for her. I talked with the dad a week or so before the transition was to happen. He told me that he deeply grieved the change this would bring to his daily routine. “I get up each morning at five so that I can have some coffee and get myself ready for the day. Then I awaken her and get her in the shower. I help her to blow dry her hair and get dressed. We eat breakfast together and then the bus comes to pick her up for school. I love our routine and can’t imagine not seeing her each day.” I was moved by the tender devotion this father showed toward his disabled daughter. Though they had never been able to have a verbal conversation, their love for each other was profound. Some people might have complained that their lives were disrupted by the demands of raising a girl who would never act older than a toddler. But this couple had invited God into their home when she was born and their souls were fed. Like Joseph, they acted in a righteous manner when entrusted with a child with unexpected needs. They watched for God’s presence in this hardship—and she became their blessing!

I wonder what you are watching for as you approach Christmas?  The world into which Jesus was born was violent, secular, divided and suspicious. Some things never change! What are you waiting for in this Advent season? We lit the candle of hope for the first Sunday in Advent. When watching the evening news or having a difficult conversation with a loved one or figuring out where the money will come from for utilities, let alone Christmas gifts, what are you hoping for?

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Advent is a time of waiting. It seems interminable to our children to wait for Christmas morning just as nine months can seem interminable to parents who are eagerly awaiting the birth of a baby in their family. We look in on our world and beg God to not disturb us, to let us continue as we are or to shield us from the injustices around us. But, if we keep watch and pray to the God who sent us the Prince of Peace, we will be surprised to discover that our souls are fed! Glory be to the Father! Amen.

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Waste Management

There’s a “Nastiness Law” still on the books in Old Town, Edinburgh. Today it’s a charming city that reeks of history, but it used to reek of something much more…human. With tenement buildings that stretched upwards sometimes 14 stories, it was a densely populated city with urban challenges in the 18th century. One of them was waste removal. There was no indoor plumbing or, for that matter, running water. Most households lived off of two gallons of water a day, used primarily for cooking purposes. In our moments of private need we head into a comfortable bathroom with locking doors. For Edinburgh residents in the 1700’s those needs were met in a corner of the home where a communal chamber pot held a day’s worth of waste. It was the daily dumping that became a problem in this crowded hub of humanity. People on the eighth floor were certainly not going to carry a sloshing bucket down endless flights of stairs to politely dispose of their household waste in a secluded spot. It was much easier and appealingly anonymous to toss the contents of the chamber pot out of the window onto the street below. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this might play out poorly. In a city known for its cultural opportunities, a lovely lady might be walking down the Royal Mile with her beau only to find their outing abruptly ended with a fecal fling from above. Lord, have mercy!

Proper waste removal is an issue. The response of the Edinburgh politicians was the Nastiness Law of 1749. This stated that one could not dump the contents of their chamber pots out the windows before 10PM and after 7AM. Even during those appointed hours, the “dumpers” were required to cry out a French warning: “Gardez l’eau!” This meant “Watch for water.” It became anglicized into a more Scottish-sounding phrase, “Gardy-loo!” Not unlike hearing the words, “Timber!” on a walk through the woods, passers-by knew to run for cover if they heard this cry. Of course, Edinburgh has boasted fine whisky served in countless pubs for generations. Much of that drinking happened in the hours of legal dumping . So one has to imagine that the risk of a disgusting dousing increased significantly for those stumbling home in the wee hours of the morning along the darkened streets of the city. I guess some risks were worth taking? You’ll be relieved to know that the Nastiness Law is still in effect so, if you’re strolling the Royal Mile when on holiday in Edinburgh, just be sure to be in by 10PM!

The Nastiness Law of 1749 was a forerunner to future legislation regarding proper waste disposal. The rights of residents were considered in the face of undesirable human and industrial by-products. In our neighborhood we’ve experienced the consequences from toxic dumping. A local shoe factory started depositing their waste products in various sites around town starting in the 1950s. The laws were much different then and allowed for legal dumping in specific sites which, at that time, were rural. But it also happened in places that were not authorized. Farmers were paid to have the factory waste dumped in their fields with the assurance that it would boost their harvest. In fact, the sludge was teeming with PFAS, a toxin that has polluted our wells and crops, rivers and sea life. We are seeing cancer clusters and other health problems in those affected areas because of dumpsites that were chosen more than 60 years ago. The suspicion that it was not good for humans led to a general cover up effort in the last decade or more. We and other households have had full-house water filtration systems installed in our homes, paid for by the company. We also have Culligan water bottles delivered monthly at their expense. But we live with the concern that our health in the future may be compromised in unknown ways because of the past. One neighbor died from cancer in a home where the water levels tested extraordinarily high for PFAS. I contracted cancer nine years after moving into this “House Street Dump” neighborhood. I assumed my diagnosis was due to genetics and not environmental threats. Now it makes me wonder. I also fear for my children’s health as they stretch into adulthood. Waste disposal has certainly faced new and stricter legislation since the 1950s. The water crisis in our area (which is being dealt with much more effectively than it is for the beleaguered residents in Flint, Michigan) has awakened our community and our state to corporate responsibility toward those who have been adversely affected by their waste disposal choices. Whether dumped flagrantly on our heads or invisibly poisoning our water, proper waste management has become a crucial issue for our modern, industrial world.

Dumping off toxic stuff is crucial in the spiritual realm as well. Quite often we start off a worship service with a prayer of confession. Before we can really have a good conversation with someone, we need to be truthful about the ways we have hurt them. Only after we come clean can we give true expression of our love. So we kick off our worship with an acknowledgement that we have failed to live the faith as we had hoped. God doesn’t need that apology but knows that we do! This becomes the model for our interaction with one another. Admitting to someone that we hurt them and apologizing sincerely for it is cleansing both ways. If someone has done us harm we ask God to help us let go of the anger or hurt, even if they haven’t asked for forgiveness. It’s too great a burden for us to live with the wounds that someone else inflicted upon us. So God helps us to leave it behind so that we can move forward unencumbered. As Christians we spiritually take out the trash regularly so that there’s not a pile of rotting grudges eating away at our productivity and robbing us of joy.

December 2 is the First Sunday in Advent. We start with a new year in the Christian calendar. As our culture catapults into a frenzied race toward the picture-perfect celebration of Christmas, our wise ancestors in the faith urge us to prepare for the birth of Christ by taking out the trash. Just as we make room for Christmas decorations by getting rid of accumulated stuff, so we do this in our personal lives. We look for the experiences that are taking up emotional room and clouding our vision of God. Advent is a season when we are asked do a raw appraisal of the toxic bits of our history that we have harbored for too long. This isn’t easy and may be a very messy process. But we courageously take proactive steps to bring them out of hiding and into the healing light of Christ. Isn’t it great that we are invited to do this annually! Have you ever had to move out of a house after filling it with things for decades? It’s a nightmare! We wish that we had kept up with the necessary sorting and purging that we avoid when there’s yet another closet to fill or space under a bed to cram another box.

It’s a messy process and there’s no legislation for spiritual waste removal. It can’t be forced. But there’s an ongoing invitation from the Prince of Peace to let go of what harms so that we can find the joy in Christmas. Take out the trash—for Christ’s sake!

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Imperfect Prayer

The Isle of Iona has been a Christian pilgrimage site for almost 1500 years. Columba, an Irish priest, sailed north in a longboat with 12 disciples to establish a monastery that would bring Jesus into this western edge of Scotland.

Adjoining the Iona Abbey that was built hundreds of years after his life is a shrine in his name. It is reputed to hold his remains although that is highly unlikely. Nonetheless this small chapel sits to the right of the main entrance to the abbey and invites the faithful wayfarers to step in for a time of reflection.


I was on my own for this part of my summer trip—intentionally. It was at the end of a month in Europe tracing my roots so I embraced the opportunity to have quiet time to begin to put the myriad pieces of my travels into place. I found myself, like others on the island, sitting and kneeling in lots of different places to pray. In New York City this kind of prayer posture could get you loaded on the back of a paddy wagon with health care officials awaiting your arrival. But on Iona folks are squatting for a prayer all over the place! I happily joined them.
So one afternoon I set my sights on the St. Columba’s Shrine as my prayer destination. You actually have to duck down to enter the sacred space. Once inside the ceiling stretches high with impressive beams that are rough-hewn and ancient. There are benches near a low altar that has a cross on it. With the purest of intentions I sat down to come into God’s presence. Before closing my eyes I looked around at this sacred space. It was windowless and made of stone. I considered how many pilgrims had sat in this same place and brought their lives into high resolution before God. I looked up at the roof structure and wondered who had put those beams together and how long ago. As I pondered these deep questions while looking heavenward, a bird swooped in through the tiny doorway and flew up to her nest on a beam just above my head.

“&@#+!”, I exclaimed out loud.

So much for holy conversation.

“Great!”, I thought to myself. I crawl into this prayer cave, following in the footsteps of so many ancestors in the faith, only to profane the space with my startled reaction to a barn swallow. Her babies greeted her arrival with excited chirps and satisfied gulps of masticated insects. I greeted her…in another language. Mea culpa.
“Lord, forgive.”


Prayer is challenging. Distractions are a given. The world cries out for our attention. We are list-lovers. We have continual to-do registers with individual items ranked as “Urgent”, “Today” and “At my leisure.” With the best of intentions we turn to our God only to find that we pull out a pen to cross something off our list triumphantly. “Oh yeah, I got that done today!” we cry. “Oh, sorry God.”


The designated prayer space in my home is deep in my closet. A foot stool that we use to reach the upper shelves of our ample wardrobes serves as my support. I sit on the floor and my elbows rest on the stool. On one of the lower shelves in front of me hangs a small metallic cross. Decades ago a young mom pressed this cross into my hand after worship. Her life was difficult. She and her husband had a combined four children—a “yours, mine and ours” family. They lived in a mobile home with perhaps 1300 square feet to shelter them from the Michigan winters. They both had a divorce behind them and worked at jobs with stubby career ladders. Their little red-headed girl, the “ours” of the family, came forward for the children’s message each Sunday and enthusiastically answered questions I asked as if only she and I were having a conversation. There was marital strain at some point and they disappeared from the church. But not before she pressed this cross into my hand as an unexpected and sacrificial gift from someone who had to watch every penny she spent.
So I think of her and her family when I sit in my prayer chapel. It gets me in touch with the challenges that so many people face and how blessed I am with my life circumstances. Even in this space, I get distracted. “Did I just hear my cell phone buzz?” I ask myself as I stumble for the words to address my God. The prospect of a human conversation seems so much easier than connecting with the God who parted the waters for Moses, knocked Paul off his high horse and sent St. Columba across the waters to establish a monastery in the land of my MacDougall ancestors. Each time I set out to pray with intentionality the tangible world I live in seems to cry out for my attention. It draws me away from the One who is always ready—yearning, in fact–to connect with me.
The best place for me to pray is in the car. I pray out loud. I cry. I sing. I push myself to think of who needs prayers and lift them up: name by name, circumstance by circumstance, household by household. And sometimes my mobile praying is interrupted by some goon who cuts in front of me with no blinker.

“Jerk!” I say out loud.
Oops.
“Not you, God. Him! You saw what he did!”
“Sorry.”
“Amen.”

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Veterans Day

In our worship service today we spent some time with our veterans. Sitting securely in our 1870’s sanctuary, we traveled into the Battle of the Bulge through the words of one of our World War II vets. Bill served under General Patton and has clear memories of his tour of duty that he willingly shared with us. His father signed the papers for him to join the Army since he was only seventeen years old. He had hoped to be a part of the Marine Corps but the fact that he was colorblind ruled that out. It was explained to him that he would be unable to discern the presence of enemy troops dressed in camouflage. So the U.S. Army became his home base. A man in our church, Tim, interviewed him, asking him if he was ever afraid. “All the time,” he assured us. “Everyone was afraid all the time.” The only time he felt safe was when he was surrounded by countless tanks. But those moments were rare.


Each soldier was given a pocket Bible when they enlisted. He carried it with him and read it in the rare in-between moments. The 23rd Psalm brought comfort to him so he recited it often. We read it together in our worship, each person invited to either follow along in our pew Bible or recite it as they had learned it. The translation doesn’t matter much when we’re talking about God’s presence in the shadow of death. Bill was able to give us a glimpse into the darkness of war. But he also spoke of the light of faith that gave him hope when in the trenches. He remembered a time that all the troops were assembled for a prayer service before a battle surge. There were Jewish, Catholic and Protestant young men standing together to be blessed before battle. At that very moment the German attack planes flew overhead, threatening their security. It didn’t matter what God you prayed to at that moment, Bill assured us. They all dove for cover, intertwined for safety in protective spaces.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me…”

chicken
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A little German boy approached their camp one day with two eggs. His family had chickens and he had come to trade what his chickens produced for chocolate! He knew that the soldiers had candy bars in their ration packs. “He wanted our candy bars,” Bill said with a smile. So they traded happily with the boy then cooked their eggs over a fire. Those were the best eggs he had ever tasted! So much so that he resolved at that moment that, if he made it home after the war, he would always have chickens. A couple of years ago Bill and his wife, Fran, sold their country home to move into a condo. Part of the sale agreement was the chickens that came along with the house! He honored that promise he made to himself as a young soldier as long as he was able.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”


Bill reminded us of why this war was fought with one of his memories. As they advanced into Germany they passed by the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Bill’s gaze fell at this point in the interview and he grew very reflective. He and his infantry brothers saw the prisoners behind the fence and he found it hard to describe their condition. He didn’t need words because his distraught face said enough. The war against the hatred and atrocities of Hitler became real for us in our sanctuary. I was astounded to learn that the way out of Germany for Bill and other U.S. troops at the end of the war was in the same box cars that were used to transport packed carloads of Jews to the camps. “They smelled terrible,” he told us. “But we got in them and rode all the way across Germany to get home.”
At this point it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it through the service without tears. Bill’s ticket home required him and the troops to sit in the stench of death and hatred. The whole journey out of Germany they breathed the horror of the war. So many of the Jews who had been packed into those cars never had a ride home. God was present on those trains regardless of who rode as passenger. Whether traveling toward torturous death or the safety of home, God’s broken heart embraced all.
“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”


Bill made it home along with some of his comrades, no longer the innocent seventeen year old who needed a dad to sign for him. He locked his experiences into an inner space that not even he sought to access. God blessed him with a loving wife and she urged him to attend the reunions of his infantry division. In the presence of those who had shared those battles with him, he was able to open up and find healing. They bought a lovely home that sat on lush acreage, raising chickens and other animals. Their home was a safe haven for grandchildren and great grandchildren to find love. Bill maintained a pool that offered hours of fun for his grandkids. He made sure the chickens had grain. Over the years, as he reconnected with his military brothers, he was able to integrate his time of service into the present. Today Bill has a ready smile and an engaging presence. His stories touched all of us and made us realize how much we take for granted. My father was a career Chaplain in the Air Force so I gained appreciation for the pastoral care work that he offered the year he spent overseas without us. We invited the veterans in our congregation to come forward and they shook Bill’s hand with such respect. It’s a club that those of us on the outside will never fully understand. The word that came to me as we thanked these soldiers for their sacrifice was redemption. God redeems even the worst of our human ways. God restores us to safe places. For those who lose their lives in service of their country, God redeems them in an afterlife where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)


I wonder if we would know more Bible verses by heart if we had to walk into a war zone. That doesn’t have to be a military battle. Folks walk into war zones in American neighborhoods, houses of worship, public schools and family gatherings. Some people’s jobs take them into a war zone every day where they don’t feel safe. Looking in with horror at a massacre in a Jewish synagogue two weeks ago or a California night club this past week, we realize that our world is messed up and our safety always threatened. Maybe pocket-sized Bibles could offer us the reassurance that an entire police force or modern security system could not. Maybe our ultimate trust—in war and in daily life—must lie in something greater than our human systems; in someONE who rises above the fray. For this One will always bring us home.
“He makes my lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.”

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All Hallows’ E’en

Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.          Mark 10:46-52

Blind Bartimaeus is the one, ironically, who got it! The sightless man is the one who saw who Jesus was. He knew that the man from Nazareth wasn’t just a gifted healer. Twice, in this short story, he cries out to Jesus as “Son of David.” Every good Jew knew that the long-awaited Messiah was to come from the lineage of David. So the man with the greatest handicap in town, a guy who was regularly sidelined by his superiors, shouted to get Jesus’ attention. He begged for MERCY.

close up photography of man s right eye
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Many times folks with handicapping conditions are viewed as an embarrassment to the townsfolk. The crowds who had come to catch a glimpse of this itinerant preacher tried to shut Bartimaeus down. “SHHHH!” But the stakes were too high so he kept yelling. When Jesus asked for him, the language of the text tells us of Bart’s excitement: “So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” Few of us spring up even in the best of conditions! Bartimaeus acted from the heart. I imagine Jesus touching him to let him know that they were face-to-face. Jesus asked a simple question of the man who had so fervently sought to have an audience with Him: “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came from the depths of his being, a prayer he must have repeated more times than he could remember. But now he was being asked to speak that prayer out loud—to the One he believed to be the Messiah. “My teacher, let me see again.” I love the tenderness in this response. “MY teacher.” Bartimaeus was not going to be cowed by the crowd into assuming that he wasn’t worthy of Christ’s attention. He belonged to Jesus as much as anyone. His faith in Jesus’ healing powers was apparent. In this encounter old Bart was perhaps the only one who truly worshiped Jesus. He already saw better than most. But Jesus gave him back his sight—the ability to take in the beauty of his world again. Notice what he did with his reclaimed vision? He followed Jesus on the way.
I can only imagine the conversations around dinner tables that night in Jericho!
Today is the 501st anniversary of Luther’s protest against the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church which launched the Church into The Reformation. It’s good for us to remember those forebears in the faith who responded to the radical call to discipleship. In sacrificial ways they cried out to Jesus for mercy and followed in the Way of Christ no matter the cost. We sit peacefully in our sanctuaries today because of their courageous response to Jesus’ invitation, “Follow Me.”


Just four days into our month-long trip in Europe this past summer, we ran into Reformation history in Paris. Our hotel was on Rue des Ecoles, meaning Street of Schools. We learned that we were walking along avenues where John Calvin had lived. My sabbatical summer was to be an immersion in my roots of DNA and Spirit. We hit up against our spiritual roots early in the trip and often! John Calvin was born in France in 1509. His dad had worked his way up from the family fishing industry and worked for the Bishop. All three of his sons were to be educated as Catholic Priests. John’s academic prowess was obvious from early on so his father sent him to Paris for an education. But these were times of great ferment and John was drawn into the reforming movement that challenged the theology and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. His challenges to the Church became an embarrassment to his father as an employee of the Bishop so his father rerouted him to Law School. He not only absorbed his legal texts but also got involved in radical discussions about theology. He learned Koine Greek which would help him later to read and translate the New Testament. After his father’s death at age 22 (his mother had died when he was young) Calvin found his way back to Paris where he became deeply involved in the Reformation movement. He was believed to be the writer of a speech delivered by a faculty member which urged folks to resist the Catholic Church with these words: “I beg of you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses.” The King of France and church officials were furious. So on November 2, 1533 at the age of 24, John Calvin lowered himself from a window of the Royal College, with a lifeline of bed sheets knotted together. Many of his colleagues, dear friends really, did not escape the wrath of church officials. They were burned at the stake for their heresy. This became a radicalizing moment for young John when he understood the intensity of the battle he was fighting. With even greater conviction, he carried the torch of faith forward on behalf of his murdered brothers.


John fled his homeland of France, heading for Strasbourg, a free city amidst the religious turmoil. But, on the way, he was sidelined because of a battle. (Did you ever have to take a detour because of a battle?!?) He took refuge in Geneva, thinking he would stay a night or two. But his reputation preceded him and he was drafted into the movement vigorously afoot in Geneva to work against the Roman Catholic Church. A trip inconvenience apparently was a Divine Appointment! He made it to Strasbourg several years later for a three-year stint, where he married a widow with two children. But the last 20 years of his life and career were spent in Geneva where he pastored a congregation while producing wildly for the Reformation movement. He preached 150 sermons a year. He wrote commentaries on 31 different books of the Bible while maintaining a full lecture schedule. He worked to protect the institution of family by urging the legal establishment of a curfew. This would cut down on drinking and absentee husbands. He labored to the detriment of his health to foster unity within a very chaotic and divided Church. He loved music and believed that singing the scriptures was one of the best ways to settle those sacred texts within our hearts. He hired a gifted musician to set all 150 Psalms to music and this Psalter became a central part of Protestant worship. We still have a copy of Garrett’s grandfather’s psalter that he used as a minister in the Christian Reformed Church, which claims Calvin as their denominational forebear.

Calvin insisted that we are shaped for “doxology”, for praise of our Creator. In his commentary on Psalm 117 he stated, “If on earth such praise of God does not come to pass, if God does not preserve His church to this end, then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion and creation will be annihilated when there is no people to call upon God.” So, while drastically changing the shape of the Church because of his beliefs, Calvin tried to live in faithful obedience to the radical call Christ placed upon him. At his insistence, when he died in 1564, he was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent mourners from wasting their energy worshiping him rather than his Maker.
And you thought navigating your life was challenging!!


Toward the end of my Nourishing Roots journey in Europe this summer I met up with another reformer, John Knox. On the Royal Mile of the Old Town of Edinburgh, a striking house stands out from the others: House in the Netherbow. It is the oldest home still standing and provided lodging for two men who stood on opposite sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide.


James Mossman was a goldsmith who made lovely jewelry for the royals of Scotland. He and his wife lived in this home from 1558 to 1572. They enjoyed a lavish life of material wealth and social esteem. But there are hints in the design of the home that assure us that security was a concern. A narrow staircase that winds between the floors has a seventh stair that is spaced differently than the others. The plan was that intruders, not expecting the difference in stair height, would trip on the stair and give away their presence. Not quite the security system of our day, it underscores that life was tense and fraught with danger! Mossman was a devout Catholic, allegiant to Mary, Queen of Scots. As the Protestant Reformers pressed down upon the city of Edinburgh, the jeweler and others who were branded “The Queen’s Men” holed up in the Edinburgh castle. They managed to hold their enemies at bay for three years. Eventually those fighting on the Protestant side overtook them and they were found guilty of treason. Stripped of all their worldly good, including Mossman’s lovely home, the men who had been loyal to their Queen were hanged, their heads posted on the castle wall.


Meanwhile, John Knox, who was born near Edinburgh, had been trained as a priest. He was a fiery orator who became a believer in the need for reform in his Church. He held his ground powerfully in public debates even against Queen Mary. This forced him to flee from his homeland for a time, his passion for reform putting him in mortal danger. He was held by the French Navy as a prisoner until 1549. Upon release, he found his way to the free city of Geneva, where he overlapped with Calvin, also in exile. Knox led an English-speaking congregation while Calvin pastored one that spoke French. In 1557 they produced an English translation of the Bible that could be used by laity. They used a more readable font than was typically used for printing religious texts. They used language that was more readily understood by common folks. It was a copy of this Geneva Bible that was carried across the ocean on the Mayflower to give the first North American colonists a Bible to read and follow.


Once the Protestants prevailed in Scotland, Knox was able to return home. He preached powerfully at St. Giles Cathedral which continues to dominate the striking city-scape of the Royal Mile. It was still a perilous time in which “smouldering discontents were set ablaze.” We can’t imagine the faith required to take a stand for a reformed interpretation of the Christian faith. Knox was nearing the end of his life and needed a place to live that was near the church. So he took up residence in the abandoned House in the Netherbow. There were two printing presses in operation in the basement of the home, mass-producing materials for The Church of Scotland, now Protestant instead of Catholic. The inscription over the door of the home, chosen by James Mossman and his bride as they moved into the home fourteen years earlier, was “Love God above all and your neighbor as yourself.” The two men who lived there were separated by their interpretation of the faith. But both certainly believed that they were honoring this Biblical commandment to love God and neighbor fully. Just three months after moving into the jeweler’s home, John Knox died, leaving as his legacy the establishment of what would become the Presbyterian denomination.
These were the men who saw beyond the features of this earthly world. They recognized Christ and, when He asked them what they wanted of Him, their request was humble. Help me to see you more clearly and I will follow in your Way. Like Bartimaeus, they didn’t waste time for themselves when Jesus showed up in miraculous ways. They hit the road, putting their very lives at risk, witnessing friends murdered for holding the same faith convictions that they did. They were exiled from their homelands but established “family” in the churches they served, churches that housed them at unexpected detours on the way.
The prophet Jeremiah ministered to a defeated people who had been exiled from their homeland and who were sure that God had abandoned them. In a passage from chapter 31 he speaks tenderly to his discouraged people. As a messenger for God he assured them that God would bring them home. It’s quite an image painted in our minds of the stream of refugees who would be brought back to their hometowns: the blind and the lame, those with the joy of anticipating a new baby and those actively delivering children who now had hope of a restored life. God had not forgotten them after all. They would soon be home.


As we stream into worship in our churches today, sipping our lattes and mentally scrolling through our endless to-do lists that assault us the minute we leave the church, we could easily forget the price that has been paid by our spiritual fathers and mothers. Countless martyrs lost their lives for speaking boldly about the changes they believed needed to be made to honor Christ as the Head of the Church. It makes me wonder, if I were to meet up with Christ this afternoon, what my answer would be if He asked me, “What do you want me to do for you?” Would I see beyond this earthly life to ask for the right gifts? Would I fix my gaze on Christ no matter the cost? I hope so. I pray so.

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Post lewd

I was sending a text to our organist with a suggestion for the postlude on Sunday. Since we were reflecting on the Fruit of the Spirit—specifically joy—I thought it would be fun to do an upbeat version of the Vacation Bible School song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart (Where?), down in my heart…” While typically sung by Sunday School children of an earlier generation (like mine!), with energetic motions accompanying the words, I knew our musician could jazz it up and send us to our homes with a song in our hearts. I adore the microphone feature on my phone which enables me to simply speak a message into written existence. Her name is Siri. But I’ve also learned that I need to proof her work! She reinterprets my dictation and sometimes spits out some nonsensical messages. So I looked over my message and was glad I did: “We will be talking about Joy as one of the gifts of the Spirit this Sunday. I wonder if you can begin your post lewd with the children’s song, ‘I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart’?”
Siri had perverted my text: post lewd. Our organist could not produce a lewd postlude if we paid him to—which we don’t! Sometimes I think that Siri has a sense of humor!
Music is probably the single most uplifting feature of our worship on a regular basis. We do lots of other things in worship that are meaningful and remind us that we have intentionally come into God’s holy presence. All the elements to a good worship service flow together thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit. But the most common take-away from a Sunday morning service is a song in our hearts. Post lewd? Not so much!


I have to confess this typo brought to mind a Simpsons episode I saw a million years ago. Church is portrayed in a fairly positive light on this show, even if Bart and Homer don’t always go with the purest of intentions. In one episode Bart has switched up the opening hymn by putting the musical score to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” in front of the unsuspecting organist. She appears to be in her 90’s but is ready to go when the pastor invites the congregation to stand and join in singing the opening hymn. She pounds on the organ and the song by Iron Butterfly sounds throughout the sanctuary. Of course, Bart had handed out hymn sheets with made-up lyrics so the throng of believers follows the lead of the poor organist by singing the words, “In the garden of Eden, bay-by, don’t you know that I lo-o-ove you…” The music seems to have a grip on the organist who keeps playing  with flailing appendages and an increased sense of exhaustion. It’s a train wreck and Bart snickers as he observes worship gone awry, his own creation. The scene ends with the poor organist collapsing on the organ keys at the conclusion of the piece and Rev. Lovejoy (really!) threatening the Sunday School class with eternal punishment if someone doesn’t confess to the dastardly deed. (Millhouse turns Bart in.)


As ridiculous as this scenario is, we know how easy it is for the ways of the world to traipse through our ecclesiastical doors on a Sunday morning and corrupt our holy intentions. Somehow the script is flipped, the hedonism of the culture seeps in and the glory we had intended to offer to God fizzles into self-righteous chanting. Post lewd. The sacred is defiled.
We must vigorously protect the integrity of this thing we call worship. Before we even enter the church building we ask God to enable us to open our hearts to new truths that we might hear in worship. We pray for God to use us to minister to our brothers and sisters in Christ in that particular church family. We humble ourselves through a prayer of confession, acknowledging that we have not acted with the kind of purity we had hoped for when we left the last service. The lewdness of the world may have tripped us up or drawn us in somehow. We come clean so that the rest of the conversation with God during worship can be authentic and grateful. We make a joyful noise in praise of our God, losing ourselves in hymns that reverberate to the core of our being. We listen intently to the reading of scripture, inviting the Spirit not just to confirm what we already believe but to challenge us to more profound areas of service. We pray for the sermon to speak to our heart and the offering to be relinquished freely from our hands. Finally, we allow the postlude to send us into another week full of joy. Because what happens at our church on a Sunday morning doesn’t stay at our church! We carry our love for Christ into a world that has learned to expect the vulgar and overlook discord. Thanks for the good laugh, Siri, for there shall be no post lewd from our church organist! Rather we will revert to the strains of a childlike faith that is instructive to us in our adult world: “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart! (Where?) Down in my heart! (Where?) Down in my heart! I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart—down in my heart to stay!”

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An Unbelievable Reunion

In early March about 20 of us journeyed to the Double JJ resort for a winter retreat. Our theme was “We Are Family” and we surveyed our congregation about matters related to family reunions. The answers painted a colorful image of what these gatherings are like for our people. The age of people present ranges from newborn to 98. 40 is the number given most frequently for those in attendance. (A great number, biblically!) When asked, “What do you talk about the most?”, the top three answers were kids, memories and life. Most reunions have three generations sharing news but quite a few have four generations and some are even blessed with five! The favorite food to eat is cheesy potatoes and the least appreciated food on the buffet table is jello with fruit! (Jello salads are past their prime apparently.) When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun learning about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! Did they follow that reunion up with a group therapy session? The source of tension at some reunions were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. Yikes! But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the clan shindig. Sharing blood ties is not easy but it is the most shaping of all our relationships, for better or worse!

James Macdougall in a kilt

Three of my siblings and I traveled through Europe this past summer tracing our roots. One sister brought along a familiar photograph of our great grandfather, James MacDougall. You can see him in full Scottish regalia, wearing a kilt made from the MacDougall plaid and playing his bagpipe. He raised a very musical family, which has been passed down to all of us. (However the bagpipes didn’t make it past his generation.) I looked at the man in the photograph and reflected on the miracle that this man, who looked so frozen in history and foreign to me—was one of the reasons why I’m alive today! I will never fully know how the way he raised my grandmother influences me today but I am certain that some elements to who I am can be traced back to him.

John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, writes to a congregation as a loving pastor. He is advanced in age and has experienced trials of faith and life. He has been imprisoned because of his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Nonetheless he continues to tell anyone who will listen about the saving grace of God that he experienced in such a personal way in Christ. John was one of twelve men who became family to Jesus. Their commitment to Him cost them ties with their natural families. In this letter John tells these young believers that they have entered a new family by being part of Christ’s Church.

We take our name from the head of household, don’t we? Adopted children are given the name of their adoptive parents to show that they belong in a new clan. John reminds his audience of their changed status: “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” He said this to a very diverse congregation who might have struggled to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. John challenges them to live peaceably since they are all attend the same reunion now. He acknowledged that it doesn’t immediately feel comfortable or natural to identify with new kindred: “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” God may initially appear as alien to us as a Scottish bagpiper in a plaid kilt. But, as we live in faithful relationship to our Creator, we will not only grow to know God personally but to recognize that Divine image looking back at us in the mirror. Cherished family ties take time and devotion.

macdougall tombstone

Families have rules. I love hearing about trips church families have taken (survived?) with children. I’ve heard tale of long car trips: 29 hours straight through to Florida with three young children was one story that made an impression on me!! Parents of young children have rules for car etiquette, right?! To avoid putting the “Survival of the fittest” theory to the test during our vacations, we set up standards for behavior that ensure safe travels for all—but also, hopefully, increased love for each other!

John doesn’t mince words about the realities of a faith community. He names a particular trait, practically engraves it on the family crest: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.” The Message translation states it in more contemporary language: “All who indulge in a sinful life are dangerously lawless, for sin is a major disruption of God’s order.” John urges good behavior in the back seat! Share your rice krispy treats. Wipe your runny nose. Don’t hit your brother on the head! There’s an expectation in a family to follow rules that guard the best health for all but that also offer the greatest chance at happiness. If we travel well with our families they will have the same emotions as our retreat members did in anticipating a family gathering: Joy, love, happiness and excitement! In our churches, these should be the emotions folks feel when they anticipate gathering for worship, a Bible Study, a mission trip, even a board meeting.

When we allow God to serve as the head of household in our new family, there are amazing gifts that await us. We are given a glimpse of that in the Lukan passage that shows Jesus reappearing after the crucifixion to His disciples. “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost…” Jesus had to show them proof that He was who they thought He was. It wasn’t easy for them to accept that He was back and alive. Verse 41 states, “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” This reunion brought joy amidst doubt. As if to allay their understandable shock, Jesus asks for some doritos and a pepsi! He tries to bring them back to some sense of normalcy. Then he preaches His first post-resurrection sermon in which He tells this family of men that His crucifixion and resurrection brought repentance and forgiveness of sins for all people.

John is right. Even though sin goes against God’s order, we all sin. Jesus assures us that there is sufficient forgiveness available for all and that we, who call ourselves children of God, need to spread that good news.

cross jesus summit cross
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Forgiveness is an easier message to preach than to live. On June 17, 2015, a self-avowed white supremacist opened fire on a group of folks engaged in a Bible study. The believers met in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the southern city of Charleston, South Carolina. The killer hoped to further provoke racial tensions at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement was being defined. What he couldn’t have understood is how their faith would unleash not just a flow of tears but a torrent of forgiveness from a grieving people. Journalist David Von Drehle wrote, “…the forgiveness expressed by some surviving family members left as many questions as it answered. Can murder be forgiven, and if so, who has that power? Must it be earned or given freely? Who benefits from forgiveness—the sinner or the survivor? And why do we forgive at all? Is it a way of remembering, or of forgetting?”

Judge James Gosnell presided over the bond hearing by televised monitor. Family members of the nine murdered church members and their attorneys were present. Judge Gosnell invited them to make their statement as representatives of their grieving families. Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in the shooting, went forward to speak. She told the gunman, whose eyes were downcast, that she was angry because her mother “had more living to do”. But as she spoke Nadine remembered the lessons she had learned from being a part of her church: “You have to forgive people and move on. When you keep that hatred, it hurts only you.” She began to think of how this young man had destroyed his own life in addition to the lives of so many victims and families. He would never go to college, marry, have a family. And so, choking back tears, she found herself saying, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again—but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul…You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

The gifts Jesus offers at the family reunion are unbelievable. Forgiveness in the face of tremendous loss? Release from a tremendous debt? Joy in spite of a swirl of confusion? Grace instead of revenge? Really? When Christians show up for a reunion where God is the Head of Household, there are sure to be surprises. Even when we share stories of unfathomable loss or lapses in judgment for which we’ve paid a price, Christ’s family always finds a way to extend love and forgiveness.

Children model this merciful living best. John, the imprisoned old pastor, knew this and used this language in his letter. In verse 7 he refers to his readers in the voice of a tender parent: “Little children, let no one deceive you…” In a letter that takes sin so seriously, we are reminded that we have met the God of Jesus Christ in very personal moments. This Head of Household gives us a chance at new life through the unlikely gifts handed out to a very diverse family. If we can live together and receive these gifts with the enthusiasm of children, our lives will be rich.

Claudia Highbaugh writes, “Think, then, of your children or of you own childhood. Remember group play. Try to imagine yourself working very hard at being understood. Try to think of the importance of being heard clearly. Remember the power of discovery as children participate in a world they create. Think of how important it was to include everyone, to make a place for those standing outside of the circle. Think of the hard work of children. This text is about beginnings. We are called to start fresh, with one another and under the guardianship of the most powerful Caretaker.”

The faded photos of ancestors we never knew give a hint of who we are. But the greater definition of our character will be shaped by those we choose as our clan, our tribe, our kin. Pastor John, with fading eyesight but vivid memories, reminds us of our family name: CHRISTIAN. At our family reunions we can expect amazing gifts, souvenirs much greater than a T-Shirt or leftover jello salad. Unbelievably we are offered repentance, forgiveness, joy and the very presence of Jesus our brother!  Wow!  Unbelievable. Amen.