Morning Prayer, First Sunday of Christmas, 29 December 2013

God With Us –

We sit and ponder along with Mary – all the stories we have heard, the promises made, the miraculous made flesh in our arms – and we are humbled. We are humbled, God, to think that, like Mary, our simple and quiet “yes” might change the world, that our simple and quiet “yes” might make your presence more fully known in this world.

We sing along with the angels – the treasured choruses of Glory to God – in excelsis deo. Music fills our ears, mini-nativity-kate-cosgroveour breath, our space – our favorite carols to retell our favorite story. We are amazed God, and in our amazement we can form no other words but a song. As we lift our voices, may we be found singing your song.

We follow along with the Magi, in faith, in curiosity, – sometimes not sure what it is we follow, or why, but we step out in faith – following something as bright as a star, or as quiet as a still small voice. Sometimes, God, voices of doubt, and anger, and frustration drown out the voices of hope and peace, of joy and love. And yet still in faith we walk, we follow.

We weep along with Rachel – in lamentation. Knowing all too deeply the pain of loss, of grief, of sorrow, of longing, we cry out to you. We seek and ask what we do not know. We bear witness to violence, to injustice, to pain – in our own lives, in the lives of our family and our friends, in the lives of those near to us, and those whom we will never know. Yet, God, you know. We trust that you join in our weeping for your children. Bring us all peace. Comfort your people, O God.

We respond along with the shepherds. We cannot blame them, God, for their fear. They were afraid – your very presence, your Gospel interrupted their lives. We fear interruption too, God. We pretend we do not; we pretend that we want your light and life. In our fear, may we hear your words – do not fear – and may we respond in faith, telling all that we see and hear.

We abide along with Joseph. God we try so hard to do the right thing, to keep up appearances, to treat people well. Remind us that our very presence, our willingness to bear witness alongside others’ faith is an act of faith itself. Keep us attentive to your work in the world and may we bear witness to your dwelling.

We pray along with Jesus, the words he taught us to pray – Our Father…

Christmas Eve Prayer

God With Us –

We know the stories by heart. We know the familiar refrains. The verses and choruses play in our ears as we shop, as we drive, as we hurry from task to task, from errand to errand. The audacious proclamations of Joy to the World and Peace on Earth have become background noise and quaint as we continue our routines and our rhythms.

We know the stories by heart. It is hard to say something new – to feel something new when the angels, Star-of-Bethlehem-Star-of-Wonder-Christmas-Starshepherds, a virgin and the stable seem all-too-familiar.

Bring us back to a sense of wonder this night.

Interrupt us – break into our mundane with your light.

May we wonder at the miracle of your Incarnation. In these moments this night, fill this place with wonder and awe at your presence among us.

We continue to wait, though, God. We continue to wait for your presence again among us. Our waiting often seems futile. Your presence seems as far away as a star over Bethlehem.

Even amidst our final details of gift-wrapping and cookie decorating and family-counting, we hear news of wars – communities around the world torn apart by the lust for power; we hear of more gun violence in our own country; we know the silent violence of mental illness, of abuse; we turn our backs on the persistence of oppression. We continue to watch as the irrationality of hatred and loss of innocent life threaten to squelch voices of hope.

Embolden us with the irrationality of your love – of your grace – of your hope.

You entered human history – you walked among a particular people. You shared in sorrow and in joy this very human life. We ache for your presence to dwell among us – in our particular time and place – to hear your voice, to see your face, to walk along side you, to share in a meal around a common table.

christmas-lights-600x400In our aching, in our longing, which continues even through our Christmas proclamation and rejoicing, find us open anew to your presence. May our hands and feet, our words and song be to the world your presence. In our work and our wonder may we bring the irrational love and grace of your Incarnation alive – wild and free – into the darkness.

We long for all these things, in the name of your Infant Son, who is our Christ. We pray now together the prayer he taught us, Our Father…

Morning Prayer, Advent 2, 12.08.13

God with us and God still to come –advent2a

God with us in our waiting and our anticipation

God still to come in the fulfillment of your promise

God with us in our pain and our hurting

God still to come in our healing and our moving forward

God with us in our questions and our doubts

God still to come in our faith and our trust and our curiosity

God with us in our hopes and our dreams

God still to come in our future and all good things

God with us in our grieving and our longing

God still to come in the wounds that don’t seem to heal, and the loss that is never filled

God with us in our restlessness and our busyness

God still to come in the peace and shalom of your Kingdom

God with us in injustices and violence – seen and unseen

God still to come in the restoration and renewal of your Creation

God with us in our impatience and our hurry

God still to come in futures yet to be written

God with us in the ordinary moments of our lives – in our shoveling snow, our many layers and our errand-running

God still to come in our longed-for moments of extraordinary hope and joy

God with us in our breathing and our praying and our singing, be with us as we worship this day – come near in our thoughts and our words and our silence.

We pray all this with your Son – Emmanuel –

Amen.

Advent is a Cruel Joke

Sometimes Advent seems like the cruelest of jokes.

It’s a season, we’re told, of waiting, anticipation, preparation.

And in true poetic form I’m never ready – in the frenzy of Thanksgiving and post-feast haze, it never seems like the right time to pause and ponder things in my heart about the anticipated promise of God’s Incarnation.

I’m sure some of this comes from my years as a student – the weeks leading up to Christmas often signaled the twinkle-lightsfrenetic sputtering through last days of class and finals week, and the exhausted return home, met again with schedules and people and meals and parties. Silent Night and Peace on Earth, indeed. By the time academic life calmed down enough to think past due dates and word counts, Advent was pretty much a shortened afterthought. At best.

Much of that rhythm has carried over into this life outside the academic calendar. Often we feel lucky just to have made through Thanksgiving. Likely I do not need to recite the tired litany of all the ways that December is anything but a quiet, reflective, patient time of waiting – instead it is (of course, you know how the song goes) a time of presents, shopping, sales, parties, cookies, socials, gift exchanges, concerts, traveling.

Maybe, too, I can blame the shorter days, the sun that often hides behind clouds, the dropping temperatures for some of my exhaustion and restlessness that lurks around the waning weeks of the year.

Maybe.

Whatever it is, whatever the rhythm of these weeks, what I feel for certain is that I have not felt this impatient, restless or anxious in a long time. I shared as much on facebook, a comment that seemingly resonated with a good number of people (especially my minister friends).

And it is Advent.

And I am pushing back with every fiber of my being against anything resembling preparation, waiting, perspective, letting go, easing my grip.

I was doing some reading about Advent (it is part of the job, after all). One thing I read caused me to do some mental gymnastics. We jump so quickly to talk about Advent as preparation for a baby to be born – we are waiting for the Baby Jesus. Which is all well and good and appropriate from a storytelling (and perhaps even decorating) point of view. But the truth for Christians in the twenty-first century (and the past twenty centuries) is that Jesus has already been born. I read this:

Advent and Christmas become time machines, taking us back to the days before the Incarnation; and so we focus on the Nativity to the exclusion of everything else. Gone is the notion that we are in the ‘mean time’ between the Incarnation and the Eschaton. Gone is the opportunity for our honest cry that things are not as God has promised they would be. Gone is the notion that God comes to us here and now, where we are, in our rush to pretend our way back to ‘when Jesus was alive.’”[1]

It’s true that Advent is time of preparation. But not just for a baby. We are preparing for the coming of Christ – but not in infant form. Or at least not in infant form only.  The coming of Christ is about Incarnation – Emmanuel – God with us. At Christmas we celebrate the miraculous incarnation of God, who came to us as a baby. But Advent is also about waiting for Incarnation in so many other ways – in the life of Jesus, in his obedience to his ministry and call unto death. And now that we live in a world that awaits the ultimate fulfillment – the second coming – Advent is also about waiting in an Eschatological sense. We live and move and have our being in a world that both has known Jesus and yet seems not to know Jesus at all.

The waiting and preparation and patience that are the focus of Advent are not just about a baby who has already come. Instead it is greater – in our waiting to place the child in the manger, we are called to be mindful of all the other ways our spirits are restless and waiting – for God’s Kingdom, for reconciliation, for peace, for joy, for hope, for love.

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All Evidence to the Contrary, Advent Meditation

I wrote this for my former church in Waco, Lake Shore Baptist Church’s Advent Devotional book. The theme for the year is On Earth Peace… Here is what I came up with:

All evidence to the contrary…

It’s the phrase that keeps cycling through my brain – particularly at sermon writing time – as I contemplate the on earth peacemeaning of deep hope, eternal peace, perfect justice.

There’s so much evidence to the contrary, isn’t there?

And I’m not just talking about the overwhelming, mind-numbing, tragic realities of civil war, famine, modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Which is not to gloss over these overwhelming, mind-numbing, tragic realities. It’s merely to admit that in the midst of our own all-too-human realities of sickness, of temptations toward despair, of broken relationships, of the hard work of healing relationships, of keeping our head above water – it becomes awfully difficult to maintain some grasp of the holy in the midst of it all. It could be just me and my penchant toward the melancholy, but some weeks it seems more like I’m reading a script about redemption and reconciliation than promising something powerful, and eternal – something real.

There is just so much evidence to the contrary – evidence that distracts away from all the sacred reality – would I really know peace, grace, hope if it smacked me in the face?

Which makes Advent so difficult, right? In the midst of perhaps the busiest season culturally, we’re to proclaim and rest in peace, patience, Incarnation. In the midst of party-planning and party-attending, shopping, decorating, cookie making and cookie eating, we’re also supposed to sit in the darkness and find the light that leads to a baby.

In spite of all evidence to the contrary – evidence the church certainly participates in  and contributes to – we find ourselves in the midst of a season of rest, of peace, but also of restless anticipation.  Not anticipation for stuff, for gifts, for large meals, for catalog-worthy decorations. But anticipation for an event, a God, that comes despite all evidence to the contrary.

My surprise each year, as busy-ness always seems to find me, as obligations and schedules and logistics present themselves as most important, is that God shows up. Somewhere in the midst of it all, God shows up – all evidence in my own life to the contrary. God still shows up. As a baby – whimpering, helpless, vulnerable. God still shows up – an in-breaking of light in the midst of the surrounding darkness. God still shows up – in the peace that passes all understanding. To be sure, this peace must pass all understanding, because how could we understand peace breaking through our very human chaos?

Despite all evidence to the contrary the power of the Incarnation – the audacity of our claim that God Is With Us – despite all evidence to the contrary we continue to proclaim the abiding truth of God’s deep and perfect hope, joy, peace and love. And despite all our evidence to the contrary God’s deep and perfect hope, joy, peace, and love will meet us this Advent.

John 8.33-47 Reflection

Over a year ago Pam Durso, with Baptist Women in Ministry contacted me to contribute to a special edition of the Smyth & Helwys Formations quarterly devotional. She wanted to gather a host of voices of females in ministry and men who are supportive of women in Baptist life. I was, of course, more than happy to participate, honored in fact. I thought I would share my submission here, which appears in the devotional guide for today, December 4.

John 8.33-47

The passages where Jesus speaks harshly, with unequivocal condemnation, are perhaps the most uncomfortable passages of scripture, if you’re anything like me. I prefer to focus on Christ’s love, grace, compassion and justice. When he starts condemning things and people, I tend to read my own life with rose-colored glasses, assuming that I remain firmly encamped with Jesus, pointing a collective finger at those who really deserve judgment.  It’s passages like this, though, that are uncomfortable because they serve as disquieting reminders that I might need to hear a word of judgment.

Jesus is speaking to a group of fellow Jews who fancy themselves exceptions. They think they are fine: We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?  This seems to be a grave exercise in missing the point. The point of freedom in Christ is not just for those who are caught in literal chains. Rather the crux of his words here rests on the destructive reality of sin: Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. This is a message for all of us. But sin is also something I don’t like to talk about. I don’t like to feel bad about myself, and I certainly don’t want to make other people feel bad either. This kind of teaching, though, is exactly what we need to hear; and we need to hear it with an expansive understanding of sin. How are we contributing to sinful systems? How does our own tacit approval lend itself to the enslavement (physical and spiritual) of others? Part of Jesus’s point here, is that our complicity in these kinds of structures does not merely harm others, but also keeps us enslaved to the forces of sin.  This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Martin Luther King, Jr.,  “no one is free until we all are free.” Perhaps the hardest thing to see from positions of privilege is our own spiritual captivity as long as others are oppressed and lack freedom.

Morning Prayer, Advent 1, 12.1.13

God with us –

We hear the call to arise – to wake from our slumber. We hear the promise that our light has come – that our A man holds a candle during a vigil for United Nations workers and other victims of Tuesday's Haiti earthquake, at Dag Hammarskjold Parksalvation has drawn near.

But God, it is hard to wake up. We are just emerging out of our turkey and casserole and pie slumber, and it is not easy to want to be awake in the world. It is cold and bitter and dark – and we are drawn to the heat and stillness and light of our own making. The world wants us to awake and arise to sales and shopping and decorations and manufactured needs. You call us to awake to your new creation.

We know in this season of waiting that we wait for our salvation – we wait for the promise of Emmanuel – of God with us – and yet we remain distracted. Instead we find ourselves waiting on gifts, waiting on the worries of pleasing family and friends.

We hear the call to arise – that our light has come. Help us find pause to find our true light in these busy days. When we are distracted by strings of lights, remind us of your light that proclaims captives’ liberty. When we are distracted by the lights of blinking screens filled with advertisements, remind us of your light that binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who grieve.  When we are distracted by the lights of the world, remind us of your light that makes even the mountains burst in song.

We come this day always distracted, always busy, always eager for something we think we know. Fill us this day with the patience of your Advent hope – with the anticipation of your advent joy – with the promise of your Advent peace. May we find our light in you this day – fill us with wonder as we seek out the light of your love.

We pray all this in your son’s name, Amen.