Sunday, December 20, 2009

Anticipation or Relief

Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent and with it a question came to mind: are you feeling a growing sense of anticipation of celebrating the birth of Jesus or anticipating relief that in a few days life will return to normal? Maybe you hadn't thought about that before, how as we get closer to Christmas there is at the same time, for people of faith both a growing sense of the culmination of so much preparation for us to join in celebrating while at the same time for so many Christmas afternoon or evening will bring a sigh of relief that all of the holiday expectations can be put away with the decorations until next year.

Maybe I'm just being a little too cynical this morning, and that's o.k. I guess. It's just that my heart goes out to so many who are working like mad to make their celebrations grand when really the best we can do is give thanks for God's love and for those God has given us. Perhaps our Pilgrim and Puritan forebears were right in de-emphasizing this holy day in favor of others; because if we can't keep straight what it is we are to be about in these next few days as well as throughout the rest of the year then maybe we really have lost our way.

I don't know. Maybe I sometimes wish that I too could have some of the wonder of childhood back. Watching Eric's eyes grow wide the closer we get and seeing him really live faith, albeit faith in Santa, is amazing to behold. Granted, there's nothing all that bad about his faith in Santa, after all his faith in Jesus is stronger and it seems to me that what he believes of Santa is generosity, love, and many other gifts that God bestows upon us. So maybe that's how I'll answer my own question, that is, I'll join with Eric in his childhood faith in Santa and allow my anticipation to build throughout the next week but I will also breathe a sigh of relief as December turns to January that my little boy's faith is still in tact.

Friday, December 18, 2009

City Lights

Today's Gospel is John 3:16-21 and in that passage so well known to so many is a word about what the judgment is to be:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.
That the judgment is light made me think about all the lights that go up all over town at this time of year.

And that made me think about all the heart rending rhetoric in December about how people don't remember "the reason for the season." I myself have been guilty of this too and maybe the real problem is that we don't look around and see just how many people understand the power of the light. I mean there are hundreds of homes just in our small city that are all decked out with lights of many colors and designs. Now I'm sure that some might say that has nothing to do with Christ or Christianity. But what about God's ability to use anything for the good?

Maybe God is using all those decked out homes to remind people of the power of light over dark. Perhaps when we see those holiday lights our hearts might just light up and we can see things in a new way. Couldn't it be that all those festive lights turn us toward forgiveness, love, joy, hope and all things blessed by God?

Or it could be that I'm just plain old silly in reading too much into all the lights around town. But then again, why not?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Challenge of Keeping Awake

Personally that's a rather ironic titled blog for me this December since I've been having rather a lot of trouble lately getting to sleep and staying asleep. Between the regular demands of the church and family there is the added nagging thought out on the horizon of my calendar of the impending Judicial Action of Kendall Presbytery slated for early January where I will be chairman of the Prosecuting Committee representing the presbytery against one of our minister members. Needless to say it is something that keeps me up at night or jumps into my thoughts when I awake at the small hours of the night.

But as I read the daily lectionary passages for today: from the Psalms through the prophet Zechariah to Revelation and onto the gospel of Matthew they were all about keeping awake for something big coming, for the coming of the Lord. Now for most of us the December crush has probably gotten our Scrooge going pretty good or at least we're having to constantly remind ourselves, even if we're the most devout Christian, what the reason for the season is.

And that's where this "challenge of keeping awake" stuff comes in. I mean, even for the devout, isn't it difficult to keep focused on Jesus? When there are so many expectations placed on us at this time of year how do we keep our focus where it belongs? What, with sales, and wish lists, and bell ringers, and travel plans, and various tasks to complete before midnight on the 24th even if we're engaged in "religious" activities it can be challenging to say the least to keep our focus on Jesus.

Knowing that and feeling it all too often lately is one reason why I've been starting each day with the daily lectionary. Yes, I'm doing so in part to work on an Advent Blog. But I'm also finding that along the way of starting the day with the daily lectionary that my focus, if just for a few minutes is on something other than the pressing demands that may or may not have anything to do with God's will or my relationship with Jesus. The ancient-present words of the Old and New Testaments push me to think about how God is indeed working in my life and at the same time how far I can get from having God in my life.

So, if you have access to a computer I wholeheartedly encourage you all to spend five to ten minutes a day reading the daily lectionary and listening for how God is speaking to you today.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Revelation

One of the big perennial questions or concerns of new leaders in the church is prayer. Not feeling comfortable praying out loud or more likely, not really knowing what to say is a fear very common in church leaders who are asked to pray. I'm not really sure where this fear comes from. It could be that pastors who are expected to develop a prayer-life over many years of preparation for ministry and throughout our various calls simply look way more comfortable than we really are. Or it could be that those who are less than comfortable praying aloud have seen one too many professional pray-ers and believe that they, themselves, come up short.

But when we turn to the Bible and see snippets of prayer or worship in the Scriptures themselves what is often astonishing to me is how simple and God centered prayer is. Gone are the long-winded prayers that last an eternity, the poetically articulate prayers of note are somewhat missing and in their place what is it that we see?

Well, for instance, take verse eight of chapter four in John of Patmos' Revelation. After John describes the heavenly thrown room of God and the various creatures that inhabit the eternal presence of God almighty we are given a hearing of what the eternal song of praise is when John writes:
"Day and night without ceasing they sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'"
It really is beautiful in it's simplicity isn't it? It may not be what many people have in mind when they think about prayer, especially if prayer is about asking. But if prayer is about forming our relationship with, to, and for God, then what better prayer than one praising God?

As you continue to move along the path of Advent that culminates in our celebrations of the birth of the One "who was and is and is to come" may your prayer life be just as filled with prayers of praise to God for being God as much as you prayer by asking. For when you do so, I believe you will begin to see how many of your prayers God is already answering.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Be Silent

Those two simple words "be silent" taken from the thirteenth verse of chapter two from the prophet Zechariah are words that we all would be better off heeding at this time of year or any other for that matter. After all, how often do we sit in silence waiting on the voice of the Lord? How willing are we to let the Spirit speak to us and not just ramble on about our needs, wants, and desires? For how many people is prayer nothing more than a shopping list or wish list?

The fuller context of these two words in the particular passage from Zechariah follow a passage about the return from the Babylonian Exile. It is a passage filled with hope and joy and expectation. It is a passage filled with action words like Up!, Escape, Sing, and Rejoice; of many nations, of many people gathering before the Lord in Jerusalem once again. And then we read the words:
Be silent, all people, before the LORD; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.

Do you have the time to listen? How will you be silent before the Lord? Are you prepared for the coming of Him who has roused himself? Please, I implore you, take some quiet time today to be silent and listen for the coming of the Lord!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ancient Prophecies Today

As the daily lectionary continues to move through the minor prophets of the Old Testament it is interesting to hear how compelling those ancient prophets can be even today. Take for instance the prophet Haggai who opens his message by talking about how the people need to tend to the House of the Lord and not only their own affairs.

Haggai prophesied after the return from the Babylonian Exile when the surviving remnant found their much cherished promised land left in ruins, the Temple included. But like most people they saw to their own affairs and it took someone to speak truth to power before work on God's House, the Second Temple, could begin.

Haggai's words are especially telling as we all struggle with what it means to live within the new realities of our world after the financial meltdown of one year ago. Many of us are making the effort to live within our means and we are hopeful that we are not the only ones, but that those who run Wall Street and sit in the Halls of Power are also doing their best to live responsibly and keep policies in place that avoid another crisis.

Then again, many of us suspect that the old temptations of greed and power have not really gone away; that they are just waiting to reassert themselves and that's where hearing Haggai's 2500 year old word from God is interesting to hear this morning. In his effort to get the powers of his day to rethink a right way to live Haggai said:
"Now therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes."
I don't know about you, but to me that sounds an awful lot like consumerism: a lifestyle of never being satisfied. When we are consumed by such a way of living then making time to think about God, to focus on God, becomes difficult. And especially at this time of year when consumerism and shopping are so much a part of what Christmas has become, maybe listening in to the prophets of Israel might do us some good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Struggling with the Daily Lectionary in Advent

Even though reading the daily lectionary has been a good discipline for me to engage in this Advent, it sure has been challenging with the last chapters of Amos and Matthew in particular has been very straining with their words of condemnation and warning. But maybe that's just the sort of thing we need to hear. I mean, even though many of us have felt the effects of the financial downturn over the last year we all still have quite a lot of stuff and if we are not planning an extravagant Christmas it will most likely not be one of nothing and just another day for most of us. In other words, we're mostly all still pretty well off.

So then, reading today's passage from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus speaks out against the scribes and Pharisees may be a word to us, even if we are tempted to think Jesus' words apply only to those people he was berating 2000 years ago. In chapter 23 of Matthew we read the following:
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

When I read those words a little while ago it got me thinking about how much actual time do we spend thinking and praying about the weightier matters of the law; of justice, mercy and faith. You know what I mean don't you? How often are our conversations, church study groups and sermons for that matter focused on treating others in our society with the justice and mercy of God? How often do we spend talking about what it would mean to live in relation with others in our world based solely on faith and not be influence by politics, status, economics or credential? How often are our concerns and arguments tied up in things as seemingly insignificant as mint, dill, and cummin?

Maybe especially in these weeks leading up to the Advent of the Christ we need to think about how the birth of Jesus changes everything; how Jesus in our lives effects every relationship we have whether the most intimate bonds of family or the most hard to imagine bonds we have with those who are profoundly other, but none the less Children of God endowed with the capacity to love and be loved. What if we really took our preparations and celebrations of Jesus into account in such a way?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Living Psalm 50 in Advent's Blahs

By now we're midway through the season of Advent, nearly two weeks away from celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord or in Layman's terms we're halfway through the Christmas Crush. As we near Christmas Eve/Day many people feel longings that they're not quite going to capture that perfect holiday glow or may be feeling something missing whether it is a loved one who has passed in the past year or the financial crunch or just getting cabin fever in the arctic cold front that is gripping our nation this mid-December. Regardless of what it is this time of December/Advent seems to be the time of year when our inner Scrooge reappears.

So what can we do? Maybe Psalm 50 has an informative word for us that can help re frame our mood this time of year. Psalm 50 has to do with what God expects of us in relationship which comes out most clearly in verses 14-15 and 23:
"Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High. Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me. ... Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God."

Giving Thanks is, of course, not only a national holiday, but a way of living. As I was driving in today thinking about all of the cruddy cold weather in the forecast it really got me down to think about how limiting more snow and freezing rain will be on not only myself but many people I know. If that is what drives my day, thinking about how many people are going to be negatively effected by the fowl weather that is being predicted it will likely drive my day into the dumps.

But what if I remember how upon getting up this morning Kathy took the time to fix us all scrambled eggs, toast and bacon? How much differently will my day be if I thank God for my family no matter what crosses my day? It may not seem like a big thing, but if it is indeed what God wants from us, to offer thanks in all ways and at many times throughout our days certainly it will have power to keep our heart and mind in the right place even in the mid-December doldrums.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Words from God

Throughout today's lectionary passages from the Old and New Testaments there are passages about the effects and consequences of the Word of the Lord upon the earth. From songs of faithfulness in the Psalms to words of warning in Amos to words of comfort in Matthew, when God speaks the people of the Bible not only know it, but they feel it too.

So, do we still feel the word of the Lord? I've been wondering about that over the past few days as we've been gripped in the cold embrace of winter all of a sudden in Twin Falls. Not only is it cold as it is supposed to be in December but it is bitter cold. What with the wind and snow, even when the sun does come out it may look inviting, but looks can be deceiving.

And so we are forced inside, we are forced to draw closer to those whom we love, we are forced by the bone chilling cold to think of those who do not live in warm and comforting homes or who have no shelter at all. Could this cold weather be the voice of God? If we really listen might we not hear something of God in both the beauty and horror of such dangerous weather?

And if we do hear God's voice, what then are we to do? Maybe this nasty weather is a wake up call for us all to realize what we have been given. At a time of year when advertisers are working their hardest to push us into thinking we have nothing or at least not enough, maybe the freezing weather outside might help direct us to seeing how much God has blessed us with which will prompt us to acts of generosity.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


This morning's daily lectionary features Amos chapter six which is a stinging rebuke of the privileged of Israel whose luxuriant lifestyle is mocked by God through God's prophet. This can be either easily overlooked as God's word against people long ago and have nothing to do with me or it can be a lens through which to examine our own luxuriant lives especially in comparison to the bleak global reality.

Then again I'd like to split the difference this morning, especially as I look at my clock and see that I have about five minutes until I have to be on the other side of the building. While I'm not quite willing to assume that this Amos passage has nothing to say outside its historical context neither am I willing or able to go off on a social-justice tirade. Instead, this passage from Amos calls to mind the sight I beheld when I showed up in the bleak and utter chill this morning at church.

Although we didn't have a lot of snow we had enough to make me realize that I'd probably be pulling out the shovel in addition to my usual Sunday morning preparations. But when I showed up at church there was a four-wheeler with plow attached to it sitting out in front of the building, definitely out of the usual. As I got closer I saw that Rob Blackston had left the warmth and comfort of his home, donning hat and gloves and cleared the walk with his four-wheeler and swept the steps and front porch of the sanctuary building. If that's not service I don't know what is.

Rob's dedication of time and being out in the cold ensuring that others would have safe footing into the building today is the kind of lifestyle that Amos ultimately encourages us to live with the prophet's damning language in chapter six. What sometimes can be overlooked or used to rhetorically bludgeon can also point to sacrificial servant hood as I witnessed this morning upon arrival at church. Thank you, Rob for exemplifying the life that Amos and Jesus preached.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Amos, a Presbyterian?

Over the last few days on Facebook I have been watching as several of my friends from seminary and other clergy I've met along the way comment on the various distractions they engage in during Presbytery meetings. Along with it being Advent, it seems that many Presbyteries hold their last meeting of the year in December. One colleague from Denver remarked how she and about eight others (probably among fifty to sixty clergy present) text one another throughout the meeting, even texting the person who is giving a report if they know his phone is on, you know, giving him a buzz. Another friend from West Virginia was lamenting how she wished she had taken up knitting so that she could get something done during the all-day meeting. And earlier this week I pondered whether or not buying a Kindle so that I could upload my Presbytery agenda to it would be justification enough for the $259 expense.

All that is to say, myself included, not too many people a keen on a day spent at the quarterly Presbytery meeting. Included among those who wonder about meetings is the prophet Amos who says for God, "I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies" (Amos 5:21). Truth be told, few people take delight in solemn assemblies, which has been evidenced enough on Facebook these past several days.

But as I read a little further in Amos, verse 24 to be exact, "But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" in those words I see justification for some of the ideas expressed by friends for finding distraction at Presbytery. For wouldn't their be some benefit in knitting a prayer shawl throughout the meeting, of being in prayer for the recipient of the shawl as well as for the work of the Presbytery. Or what about the friend who texts her colleagues in the midst of the meeting, certainly that's better than a gaggle getting up and talking in the halls or worse yet among one another while someone else is trying to speak.

Now I'm not sure that Amos had knitting or texting in mind when he prophesied so many centuries ago, but when you think about how some would have us behave during such a solemn event as Presbytery maybe a distraction every now and again might open the gates and allow justice to roll down.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Boise State & Psalm 102

Granted, that title isn't too catchy and it has little to do with Advent, but then again even as we prepare our heart and mind for the Advent of the Christ we do so within the context of a very real world. After all, are we simply to lay aside all of our worldly concerns in these weeks leading up to Christmas? Does not God want us to enjoy life? What harm is there in cheering for a team that is most definitely an underdog in the world of college sports? Couldn't how we cheer for Boise State be a witness to others about how to go about being a fan?

Maybe its a bit much to say that being a good fan of Boise State is on par with being a good witness to the love of God found in Jesus Christ. Yeah, it probably is. But what the heck, after all, as I said they're underdogs when you consider football programs that have dominated the headlines for generations. So why not join with the psalmist and make our prayer for Boise State:

Hear my prayer, O LORD;

let my cry come to you.

Do not hide your face from me

in the day of my distress.

Incline your ear to me;

answer me speedily in the day when I call. (Psalm 102:1-2)

What could be the harm? Maybe by praying thus for Boise State we'll get into the spirit of relying on God even more on more pressing matters in our life. Maybe by praying thus for Boise State we'll begin to see that there are other concerns in our life that need to be covered in prayer just as passionately. Maybe by praying thus for Boise State we will find in ourselves a longing for the living God who comes among us as the ultimate underdog; as a babe in a manger.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fruits of the Kingdom

Reading today's daily lectionary is a challenge. The Psalm is about God rescuing someone, but in the process of doing so there is much fire & brimstone language. In Amos the prophet speaks for God who has gone to great lengths to show favoritism to Israel and yet still Israel does not turn to God. In the Epistle, 2 Peter, there is instruction about not following those who might lead us astray. And finally in the Gospel for today, the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46 Jesus tells the story of a man who grows a vineyard and then travels to a foreign land while the neighbors kill all the vineyard workers and even the vineyard owner's son. In short it is not a very cheery set of readings.

And yet, toward the end of the Gospel Jesus says, "the kingdom of God will be ... given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."

Although I'm certain if I turned around and consulted my Bible commentaries there are many wise men and women who could tell me more specifically what Jesus meant by the "fruits of the kingdom" but it made me think about Jesus' response to the question about what the greatest commandment is and his reply; loving God and loving neighbor. Jesus' words about producing the fruits of the kingdom also made me think about Paul's letter to the church at Galatia where he said, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things."

Even in the midst of some very challenging passages of scripture, Jesus' words about the kingdom of God belonging to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom seem like very applicable words in the hustle and bustle of early December. For if the fruits include loving God and loving neighbor there are many opportunities for us to pause in the midst of our many tasks and give thanks to God as well as looking out for the many people who make up our neighbor.

Likewise, with so much stress being associated with the month of December, trying to keep in mind things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control can bring a lot of growth to our preparations. Granted, adding one more list to an already burgeoning list of responsibilities might seem like a lot to ask, but when we think about the outcome achieved by producing the fruit of the kingdom, that of coming into an even fuller embrace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, perhaps the added responsibility might just be worth the effort.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Heroes and Psalm 147:10-11

Tonight at our church's LOGOS ministry we're doing "Heroes Night" and as I lay awake early this morning I wondered about why we're still fascinated by or repelled by heroes. And then I read this morning's daily lectionary from the Psalms, especially verses ten and eleven which read; "[God's] delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love."

What those two verses said to me is that we want someone in whom we can trust steadfastly. And even as we are reminded again and again that steadfast love is what God wants from us, we fickle, finite, people are always on the lookout for a being who is greater than we are and yet also one whom we can see.

That's where heroes come in. Whether they are heroes from the battlefield, like the dwindling number of Medal of Honor Recipients, or heroes from the ball field, or heroes from the world of comic books; we all long for someone who can do more than we can and whom we can trust to be there for us no matter what. Of course that is who God is in our lives and our longing for God to be more present was accomplished by God through the incarnation and later the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of God's Son Jesus Christ who made the way for the Holy Spirit.

And yet even as we confess our faith in such beliefs we daily long for something more tangible. And so we put our hopes in the boys in blue on the blue turf in Boise or in the men and women who give of themselves overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan or we look to supermen and women from the world of "graphic novels" to rescue us. And yet at some point or another all of these valiant heroes let us down in one way or another and we would better serve by the One who came to be among us--Emmanuel--God with us. And that is our challenge for this Advent season, to longingly trust that God comes among us and lives in us and that makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advent Calendars & Amos

This morning I awoke to the sound of Kathy egging Eric on about what new special thing he would get to do starting today. He had all sorts of guesses and it took him awhile to remember that this being the first day of December meant he could begin opening his Advent Calendar.

I'm sure most of you have had Advent calendars with little doors that open up revealing either symbols of the season or maybe even a little treat. I remember being especially fond of the chocolate Advent calendars as a child, but with a little sister that meant that we alternated days of opening the little doors. In our family's case, Kathy last year made one out of twenty-five little tins that reveal chocolate, legos, and this year a Bakugan!

And so I was reminded that, if I can remember, I might try and blog through Advent using the daily lectionary and other sources. And boy what a surprise to read Amos today. I mean, I've been thinking about how the sermon might unfold with this coming Sunday being the Second Sunday of Advent with Luke's introduction of John the Baptist and how people have mixed feelings about having to run headlong into John in their Advent/Christmas preparations, but he's nothing compared to Amos.

Amos' word from the Lord makes John's "voice crying out in the wilderness" seem rather tame. Which makes me wonder about whether or not we really understand the prophetic voice, especially at this time of year. Sure, some Christians will get upset about all the Santas and Reindeers and Elves and cry out "Jesus is the reason for the season." But really, do any of us think that will make a difference? With all the suffering in this world, what does it matter whether or not people focus too much on Santa?

Maybe instead of getting all worked up about decorations or the greetings people extend to us we should look out for words from the Lord that we see in those around us whether or not they claim any faith or not. After all, God doesn't want our self-righteous indignation, but rather the gift of our heart in response to God's gift of Jesus and then our sharing of ourselves for those in need.