Rejoice? Rejoice.

Another Advent devotional.  This one, from 2010.  The theme: “Rejoice!”  Here are some words of explanation:

Our theme for Advent this year is “Rejoice!” based on Isaiah’s prophecy about signs of new life in the wilderness, the blossoming of hope in parched places. The crocus in the desert signals the presence and power of God, so those who are weary or fearful can take heart in the midst of desolation. According to Isaiah, so great is the joy and so profound the healing Emmanuel God brings that those who were lame now leap and those who were speechless now sing.

We live, however, in the tensions between the reign of God established by Jesus and the final fulfillment of that reign. The needs of today’s world cry out to us. We, too, yearn for salvation, for the one who enables new life to blossom within our very souls. The promise held before us offers God’s love and mercy and God’s power to heal and restore. All Creation – even the barren desert – joins in this transformation.

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My hands look wearied, weathered. The wrinkles marking the joints of my fingers are white; my nails are picked at; my skin is rough.  These months have felt rough.  The pain and sorrow of being merely human threatened to leave my spirit as wearied as the hands I’ve wrung in fear, in isolation, in anticipation.

I am no gardener. I try but I kill things.  To me the most poignant image of something rising out of nothing, of hopes realized is in the making of bread

I look down at the mixing bowl, and the ingredients spread before me.  And I look at my hands.  Clean in preparation; the only soap in the kitchen is dish challahsoap—extra dense and sudsy (strong enough for the remnants of a crusty casserole)—and the scent lingers on my fingertips.  As I survey the flour, salt, eggs, and review the recipe, I am reminded of the size of our kitchen (small) and the amount of counter-space (nominal).  I have never made bread before, not real bread.  Not without youth to my credit, and the help of a mother or grandmother.  Baking, however, runs in the length of these fingers.  More and more the youth is undeniably leaving my hands, the strength and maturity of adulthood showing itself in the veins and lines. I look down the length of my slim fingers, with trimmed and painted nails, and I see my mother’s hands.  My mother who baked.  I have learned that baking means sharing. I delight in creating things from scratch—using only a fork and a spatula as my tools.  The recipients’ smiles make the hard work worthwhile.  It is not domestication; it is sharing.  Though I have dabbled in cakes and brownies, bread remains uncharted territory.  Not true bread.  Banana bread; breads out of a box; muffins—those I have made.  But today will be real bread.

I look down at my hands.  They are clean.  They are weathered.  The cold, windy Texas winter has left them hardened and rough.  Inside we hide from the wind but only barely escape the chill.  I can see the peaks of my hands that serve as the first shield from the deafening wind.  I can see the folds of skin in between my fingers—especially that tender spot between the thumb and forefinger—intended to be protected, yet white and cracked from neglect.  These are the hands, and these are the ingredients.  I am going to make bread.  The months have been long, but I will create.  For me this is theological.  I have lost my center, and must remember what theology is.  The ingredients spread before me, the promise of the product, the sharing—this is salvific; this is redemptive.  This is sharing.

For all my worrying, the dough is finished, quicker and easier than I thought.  The ingredients mixed together, and I followed directions.  Rolling up my sleeves, I turned the dough over, kneading and folding.  The hardest part was washing my hands after I had set the dough aside.  The bits of dough clung to my under-moisturized fingers, flour mixing with cuticles, both melt off in the steaming water.  Yet I still scrub, washing the promise—the hope—of something yet to come.  The rising took twice as long as the words told me.  Patience and nerves watched, worried that I would have dense, flat challah to present to friends awaiting something appearing more like real bread.  (And I also think what a great sermon title ‘unintentionally unleavened’ would be.)  The dough beat out my patience, eventually rising.  I split the dough, braided the three pieces, and baked it.  Despite the temperamental oven, the result exceeded expectations—golden, warm, perfect.  I watched my hands nervously check the ingredients; watched them measure and stir, knead and fold.  I watched them braid and bake.  These hands slice and share.

Though based on the Eucharist, perhaps a sacrament more attuned to the Passion narratives of another Christmas season, the anticipation of the world borne anew at the death and resurrection, persists even at the waiting for the child to come; the star rising, the flower breaking through, the bread of life proofing, rising, baking, giving life.  We were meant to create and combine ingredients, to take food and share it.  It is life. Bread is life.

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Comfort Your People. Morning Prayer, Advent 3.

Comfort, comfort your people O God.  In the face of unspeakable loss, tragedy, and horror, we seek peace, and yet doubt its coming.  Cloaked in the darkness of the unknown and fear, we yearn to know how to move toward your light. When our sighs are too deep for Imagewords, and when we weep for others’ loss, be in our breath and be in our tears.  When we respond with open arms and questions that echo without answer, be in our reach and in our unknowing.

Comfort, comfort your people O God.  For those of us saturated in grief while the world around us dances and bells jingle, ease the pain and sorrow.  For those whose daily burden seems too heavy to bear, speak clearly your peace, give clearly your strength.

Comfort, comfort your people O God. We are better givers than receivers. Especially in these days of ribbons, and bows, and pretty papers, and fancy wrappings, may we find ourselves with arms open to receive – not gifts of stuff, but your eternal and perfect gift. Break down our walls of pride and arrogance that we are able to recognize not just the obvious gifts given, but your simple, surprising, absurd gifts.

Comfort, comfort your people O God. May we find joy and regain our laughter when we are tempted to take ourselves too seriously. We want power – we want to stand on our own, we want to be in charge, we want the power to fix things.

We hear the voice crying in the wilderness – calling us to repentance – calling us toward a reversal – toward your own Reversal of our expectations. May our repentance ready us to receive your gifts, and allow you to shape us into your own self.  Even in our reluctance and our unwillingness, may we be made into your image and your people.

Comfort, comfort your people O God. May we not just speak of your peace, but may we know your peace. May it be your very presence among us.

ImageWhen we trust too quickly on weapons, fill our yearning for ploughshares, for understanding, for a final no the turmoil around us.

Bring us together in community, to receive the gift of your Son.  Amen.

Singing with Mary

Below is another Advent devotional, this one from 2008, all centered on the Magnificat, Mary’s song in Luke 1.46-55. I love the echoes of the prophets that sing hope into the future.

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Baptist Pastor Cam Watts, in reflecting on the Advent season, is quoted as saying:

In the somewhat frenzied aspects of the season, and wars and rumours of wars and pestilence and hope and despair and engaging powers, I keep a supporting image of God coming to us as individuals, or stepping into the midst of conflict, holding out a swaddled infant to us and saying, ‘Here, hold this for me, will you?’

2-magnificat-cardTalk about the unexpected.

Then again, why should we expect anything otherwise? Through the Hebrew scriptures, we find examples of the most unsuspecting and unsuspected persons speaking truth in the face of all that is not true, of justice in all that is not just, and of what is holy in all that is not.

We could use a little of that right now.

We could use a voice crying out in the wilderness, reminding us who we are and from whence we came. We need someone to help us name our fears and terrors, that we might confront them, that we might be assured of God’s faithfulness in the face of all that is mighty and unfaithful.  We need to know how to be human again.

So why Mary? I doubt I need to remind you (as most of the devotions have also done) of all that made Mary as a messenger of God (with arguably the most important message of all) a completely preposterous idea. Our God—from this girl.  But here she is…singing her song. She joins her voice in the chorus of the prophets and the gospels—the song that reminds us that apparently failed promises are being kept just when we thought they were abandoned.

The future proclaimed in her song, in all the singing surrounding the otherwise quiet, swaddling incarnation of God, is that singing will be possible again.  She sings the song and then brings to life a complete reversal of our expectations: we expect a mighty, dominant force bringing utter and immediate change: we receive a teacher, humble and tortured.

We must sing. We must sing, with Mary, a song of hope and of liberation. And magnificat_radicalwe all must sing the song—to remember ourselves into the covenant of God that will maintain us.  And we must allow the songs to transform us—continually singing a new song to God. Complacency has never led to change, and waiting for others to go to work leaves the whole world idle. Hoping for someone else speak out of the wilderness to challenge the gross injustices of the world will leave us all in eerie silence

As Christmas approaches and we await the world made new, we remember the birth that happened unnoticed, and continues to catch us off guard. But let this year be the year we break the silence; let this year be the year we sing our song of salvation; let this year be the year we sing along with the prophets, along with Mary, the song of justice and liberation, the song “in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise God has made.”

Home By Another Way

The following is my contribution to the 2009 Advent Devotional, “Home By Another Way,” based, loosely, off the Matthew 2.1-12 text, where the Magi return “home by another way.” It’s interesting to re-read this, some three years later, and reflect on how homesickness is an ache that never leaves, and to also feel an accompanying sense of gratitude for the myriad other ways home has found me, and I have found home since then.

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This year [2009] is the seventh consecutive year I have spent Thanksgiving away from my family and away from My Old Kentucky Home. By now, I’m pretty used to it.  And while I’ve had other as-good-as-families and almost-homes to spend the holiday, it never fully assuages the bittersweet homesickness.

Homesickness is a close friend of mine.  I suppose it’s the downside of the vagabond nature of being a student.  I’ve moved around, between school and work, and now hold a little bit of home with me in each place, and leave a little piece of me behind when I leave.  This restless ache is particularly profound inhomesick leaving one home behind and heading into the unknown of the home-yet-to-be.  With every departure from a place and a people that has become home and family comes the echo of questions of the unknown.  Where is home and when will I get there?  Will I even know it if I find it?  Is home a place or is home a people or is home something else entirely found in that peace that passes all understanding?

My life as a perpetual student (going on 24 years now) has given me a collection of homes and families that stretches across the map, but has also inured me to the sense of restlessness.  We all sense this restlessness in the search for feeling at home.  When we move away, our new homes will never feel the same as the comfort of the walls or the streets we leave behind.  A sense of feeling like a stranger in a strange land haunts us to varying degrees, at least for a time.

The Bible is thick with stories of persons and groups of people who were homesick, wandering, and finding home in surprising places. By the last chapters in Isaiah, the Hebrew people had witnessed the destruction of their temple, their beloved city, and had endured fifty years of captivity.  They looked forward with great anticipation finally returning home. I can only imagine the pit of homesickness that must have consumed their stomachs and eaten away their hearts. They could cling to one another in their exile, all the time resting on the promises of God that they would find a new home.  But what happened when they arrived at Jerusalem?  They could not go home again. And as current events show, the battle for the Holy Land has only gotten more hateful and more divided.  Where is the home that God promised?  There is a profound restlessness that longs for the comfort of the words of Isaiah: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered. . . . No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” (Is. 65: 17, 19).

In reflecting on the story of the Magi, I think about the surprising ways that home finds us.  Often in the midst of our restlessness, in the midst of our searching, in the midst of “I-won’t-be-here-long” and “just-for-a-bit” we find ourselves at home.  We find persons and places along our journey that serve, for a time, as a resting place for our weary, questioning, and restless bodies, souls, and spirits.  Out of the sense of already-but-not-yet, often without realizing it, and without planning it, we find ourselves at home.

Waiting for the Light

The prompt came in my inbox mid-September.  It is a tough task to think about Advent when in the throes of a fall programming. What does a chill in the air feel like? What does early evening darkness look like? What do hymns of hope and anticipation sound like?

The Advent theme at Lake Shore Baptist Church this year is Waiting for the Light.  This is a shorter version of the prompt:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  These words focused the attention of the generation who first heard them on the coming reign of God.  Like the ancient people who heard the prophetic words, we, too, walk through the   world seeking any sign of God’s light to illumine the darkness and help us take the next step. On our journey through life – and through Advent – we learn that divine things can be experienced here and now.

Here are the words I submitted:

the right kind of light

the right kind of light

I do this thing at night when figuring out what time to set my alarm. I like to get up and out the door while it’s still dark. I like to watch the sun rise as I’m breathing with my whole being. There are some practical advantages to hitting the pavement, as it were, in the darkness of the dawn. I tend to run faster when it is both cooler and darker. If I get my run in first thing in the morning, I don’t have to dread it the rest of the day. When figuring out what time to set my alarm, if I am going to get my run in first thing in the morning, some mornings that makes the “first thing” in the morning quite early indeed.

But I have found holy moments in these early morning runs. To be sure, there is something holy and life-giving about feeling the ground beneath my (sometimes) swiftly moving feet, as the breath huffs and puffs into my lungs and back out. When I am mindful, I am wholly thankful for movement, breath and agility. (Though if I am being honest, I know I am not always mindful enough of these gifts.)

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advent fog

My favorite mornings to run are the deep fall and early spring mornings. When I get up on these mornings, when the chill is still sharp and bone-awakening, I can see my breath in the air – the white puffs of my own life set against the still-dark morning. In many ways these runs have me more aware of those around me as I am looking out for vehicles who are not as aware of my presence.  There is a strange solidarity of the early morning – of being some of the only few souls awake and aware of what this side of sunrise looks like. My favorite thing, though about my early morning runs is the way the sky changes with every step. As night is giving way to dawn, as the moon rises on one side of the sky and the sun begins to emerge from another, with every step, the new day breaks in.  Sometimes it feels as with every quickening, cold breath I am breathing the very morning into existence. (Which is, yes, a tad dramatic, but it certainly takes my mind off the sharp incline of the hills along my route!)

There is something transcendent in the early morning hours as the streets around me start to wake up, and by the end of my route it feels as though the sun itself is chasing me home. I think of God’s own light, God’s own in-breaking, which happens regardless of our presence to witness it, but how beautiful and haunting bearing witness can be.

Morning Prayer, Advent II

O Come O Come Emmanuel,

Come to us, abide with us.Image

We continue to wait, and long to believe that the Advent story will give way to the Incarnation of Christmas.

We hear the prophets’ proclamation that the paths will be made straight and that every valley will be exalted, every hill made low.  We hear tell that your Glory will be revealed.  Come O Come Emmanuel and make it so.

We hear that the desert will bloom for joy at Christ’s coming. We search for evidence; we search for the absurdity of wild roses and crocuses breaking through parched earth.

We hear the angels’ song, we hear Mary’s “yes”, we hear the shepherds’ story – may we proclaim alongside these voices, bearing witness to your presence.

We hear that a child will lead us. We hear this very child bear names like Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. We hear tell of his authority and kingdom of eternal peace.  We search for evidence of this, even in this time of twinkling lights, sparkling ornaments, and joyful choruses, O God, it seems hard to believe this truth, your truth.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, and make it so.

We continue to gather together to sing songs in anticipation, in hope, in faith because we have been told of your coming.  And yet, we look around and, if we are honest, our hope is often dim.  O Come O Come Emmanuel and make it so:
Turn our swords into plowshares;
Cause the deserts to bloom;
Give the blind sight, the sick new life; restore us all in your hope and your peace.

O Come O Come Emmanuel, in our waiting, in our looking, may we see your promise of hope, and evidence of your incarnation in our world.

We pray all this with the Christ Child. Amen.

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(adapted from, and inspired by a prayer for Advent by Sharlande Sledge, associate pastor at Lake Shore Baptist Church, Waco, Texas.)

Morning Prayer – Advent One.

Come, O Long Expected Jesus.

We are not good at waiting. We enjoy having the answers; we enjoy having information literally at our fingertips.

It’s hard to enter this season with so much information, so much knowledge, knowing the end of the story and yet being told to wait.

We know what happens next, and so often we are quick to skip this part to get to the end.

Give us pause in these days and weeks to reclaim the patience necessary to meditate on what it means to wait for your coming.  Give us the space and the time to open ourselves fully to the promise of your incarnation.

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God, we are a people of information, constantly seeking and relying on concrete data. You are the God of truth, of mystery and of presence.  May this season allow us to become people who embrace the mysterious truth of your presence among us.

Though we are not very good at waiting, we are all-too-familiar with longing.  Perhaps we’ve even lost hope in our impatience and our hurry.  We need not look too far to see places, faces, communities, populations where your presence is so deeply needed.

Perhaps the answer, God, is in your mystery. When we are tempted towards concreteness, grant us a sense of wonder. In a world of facts and figures and logic and numbers, remind us that you are the God of mystery, who speaks life into all who are ready with a faithful “Yes.” May we say yes to your presence, yes to your promise, yes to your mystery. May we live into it all in wonder.

May our yes be in response to the life and witness of your son, with whom we pray today.

Amen.