You Belong

January 17, 2021

John 1:43-51

                The next two weeks we hear from both the gospels of John and Mark. They both share with us how Jesus calls his disciples to come and follow him. He is inviting the first disciples to share with him in his journey that will ultimately end at the cross. One purpose for him in the next few years is to prepare the disciples so that they are ready to continue sharing that same good news once he has ascended into heaven and his physical presence is no longer with them. Jesus invites the disciples into a place where they belong and as followers of Christ, we receive that same invitation to be in a relationship which God has intended since the beginning of creation.

                As the twelve disciples begin to gather as one, I have wondered, how many of them knew each other? If they were fisherman, were they ever out on the same boat, or were they competitors going for the same catch? How uncomfortable were they around Matthew, a tax collector? Did they ever get an uneasy feeling around Judas?

                Now, I have managed several stores and held positions of leadership in a few churches. There are many different personalities that one encounters daily and to be able to interact on a personal level with each one can be a challenge. It is not only interacting personally with people, but also guiding those interactions among others and encouraging peace when sometimes there is animosity. Jesus knew how to interact with people. He had to be stern at times, like those times that Peter keeps sticking his foot in his mouth or he is questioned about Mary pouring perfume on his feet. At other times he had to stand up to the questioning of the chief priests and pharisees and be persuasive and to the point. At other times he had to be vulnerable in sharing his love for others, for instance, when Lazarus is dead, Jesus weeps for him.

                Jesus has proven he can relate to others, but how did he ensure his disciples interacted with each other in a friendly manner and even treat each other like family? I wonder if Jesus introduced a few ice breakers to them so that they could get to know one another. As a natural introvert, I always cringed when a teacher or leader said, “let’s do an ice-breaker.” Ice breakers forced me out of my comfort zone. Maybe he had them play bingo, where each square may represent a quality, property, or story of a person. You then had to find another disicple to sign that square if it could represent them, like having 2 sisters, or a dog, or if you enjoyed olive oil. Maybe he had them play “Would you rather…” He may have asked, “Would you rather walk across the country to Jerusalem or spend several days on the Galilean Sea?” Or maybe, they just had to share something about themselves that no one knew.

                As much as I cringed at the thought of ice breakers when I was young, and I admit I still do to some extent, I always have our youth do them, especially when we go to camp. It is a great way to get to know one another, especially when you are going to be spending an extended amount of time with one another. I am sure there were struggles among the disciples. We read that they argued over who was the greatest. Yet, Jesus is encouraging them to live in communal relationship as God has called all of humanity to live together in creation. They were an example of this relationship that Jesus was living out for everyone to witness and experience for themselves.

                Jesus wanted the disciples, and honestly everyone he interacted with, to know that they belong. They belonged to the group of first disciples. They belonged where they were learning to share the Gospel, even if they were feeling inadequate. They belonged in the presence of God because they were loved, and Jesus wanted the best for them. Jesus’ invitation extends to all of creation, letting us know, we too belong to God and one another. We desire to belong and be a part of a family, community, or group that reflects the love that is found in God.

                Unfortunately, that love can sometimes be found in the wrong places. When I was in junior high school, I remember having a former student come and speak to one of my classes about being in a gang. That desire to be in a gang stemmed from his wanting to belong to something. The gang made him feel welcome and they watched out for him, even though many of the things they asked of him required breaking the law. It took him being arrested and having a tough conversation with his family that he was able to focus on himself. His family welcomed him home and was more open in expressing their love and he found other groups to positively support him when he needed it the most.

                The same occurrence is played out in the functions of other groups. Individuals are quite often first drawn in by a charismatic leader that makes promises that may be completely false. It could be religious, like the Branch Davidians or Jim Jones’, The People’s Temple. It could be ideological in which we can witness daily in various social media outlets where false facts and misleading claims are harder to proof and a lot of people believe that whatever they read on the internet must be true. They are drawn into a group in which they feel a part of something. Once again, it is a sense of belonging they desire.

                One can also be drawn away from a sense of belonging after having negative experiences and being nervous to join anything else.  There is then a different reaction as the pendulum swings the other way, making self-isolation appealing at first glance and in turn separating themselves from the love of others and Christ. When one doubts themself, it is easy to be convinced and persuaded by others. When one doubts a community as a whole, it is easy to isolate.

                The people of Israel had been waiting for a Messiah and there were many false ones before Jesus started his ministry. After they encountered Jesus and knew that he was the real thing, they wanted to belong. Whatever hesitancy the first disciples had, they quickly dropped what they were doing to follow Jesus. He welcomed them and ensured them they belonged in the family of God, as did all of humanity. The invitation from Jesus to those first disciples would be a sign of what was to come and an example for all to follow.

Jesus has reached out his hand to invite us into his family. When we were first invited to the church, the hand of Jesus may have reached out to us through a friend or family member, a neighbor, or even a stranger. Jesus has lovingly welcomed us and let us know, we too belong, through his words in scripture and the love shared with us by others. As the disciples continued to share the good news with others following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called to share the same good news today. And sometimes, we need to hear that invitation again, letting us know that we are loved, and we belong. You belong here! You are loved! You are a vital part of this community.

Who can you reach your hand out to at this time? While not meeting in person, it may be a phone call or an email. It may be a text message or a note on Facebook. Who are you letting know today that they are loved, and they belong to this beautiful community? Jesus invites us to the waters of baptism and the table to break bread and be filled with the Holy Spirit. May you share that invitation to those you encounter because the Lord’s table is open for all and there is a seat for everyone because we all belong.

Holy Spirit in the Chaos

Jordan River from visit in January 2020

January 10, 2021

Mark 1:4-11

The Holy Spirit is a mystery we quite often relegate to just a few Sundays a year because she does not take human form and thus makes it difficult to relate. Because of this, it is easy to ignore the Holy Spirit and simply focus on Jesus. However, the Holy Spirit amazes and surprises when we least expect it. The Holy Spirit can guide our everyday actions if we open ourselves to her mystery.

                I am not sure if the people of first century Israel fully knew what was in store for them in the hoped-for Messiah. It is the Holy Spirit John the Baptist pointed to over three different Sundays since the beginning of Advent. It is the Holy Spirit that makes a difference between his baptism of the people for repentance and the baptism that begins with Jesus and the descending of the Holy Spirit onto the scene as heaven is tore open and the promise of God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit instills and reveals our deep seeded faith in the Lord, our God. The Holy Spirit cheers us on and directs us to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit is present at all times in our struggles and successes, challenges and achievements, sorrows and joys, heartbreak and jubilation. The mystery of the Holy Spirit is challenging and miraculous all at the same time.

                I would be remiss if I were not to address the events of this past week in light of our gospel lesson for this week. I do not recall another time in recent history when so many were sitting in front of the news in utter disgust and disbelief since September 11. What we witnessed on television Wednesday is not a true representation of the United States, but a highlight of the racism and personal desires that are prevalent in our nation. It was nothing less than domestic terrorism. The resolve shown by the majority of our elected leaders to move forward with their duty was a true representation of democracy at work and a step in the right direction of healing a divided and battered nation. I will admit I found it hard to accomplish anything Wednesday afternoon as I filled with anger and teetered on the brink of tears for what was taking place in our nation’s capital.  

                Where was the Holy Spirit at work this past week as we all had front row seats to what was happening in our nation’s capital? The Holy Spirit was with each one of you as you watched in stunned awe. The Holy Spirit was looking over our nation’s capital with her own tears and providing a presence of comfort and restored peace. The Holy Spirit was with our elected leaders as they sought safety from the chaos only to return later in the evening to finish the job that has happened regularly every four years for centuries.

                The actions of those gathered to lay siege to our democracy lead us further away from the good news of Jesus Christ and clouds the view of the work of the Holy Spirit. When we follow our own way and dig our heels in, we get buried in the muck and grime of the world and that muck and grime will often times block out the light of Christ. We can be led astray by misleading and false facts, which distorts and can lead us further away from the Truth that is Jesus Christ. And there are times when we simply refuse to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit. As mysterious as the Holy Spirit is, we are invited to follow its lead with open hearts and minds. In the Holy Spirit our faith is fostered for the challenges that ensue when following Jesus Christ. The promise of the Holy Spirit begins with our ancestors and it written in the Hebrew scriptures:

  • For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground;
    I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
    and my blessing on your offspring. Isaiah 44:3
  • The days are surely coming. . . . I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Ezekiel 36:26-27
  • Then afterward
    I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
    your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
    29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my spirit in those days. Joel 2:28-29

The Holy Spirit is the power of God coming to reside within us. In Jesus’ baptism, he is revealed as the Son of God, whom God loves dearly. This is the very sign and promise that is made to us when we are baptized. The Holy Spirit comes to reside in our own very beings to wash over us and lead us. Are there times where we ignore the Holy Spirit and stash it in the closet or attempt to bury it under the rug? Most definitely! 

Yet, the purpose of our community in Christ is to live out the calling of the Holy Spirit and be guided in the way of Christ. God invites us to be open to the mysteries of the Holy Spirit. We open ourselves up through prayer, contemplation, and the constant reminder of our own baptisms. Every time you are in the shower, take the water and make the sign of a cross on your forehead. Every time you are doing dishes, take the water and make the sign of a cross on your forehead. If you have young children and you are giving them a bath, make sure that they are reminded that they too are a blessed child of God and make the sign of a cross on their forehead with the bath water.

We have been challenged this past week in many of our thoughts and beliefs.  We have struggled with what to make of the actions that have happened in our nation’s capital. No matter what, may you know, that whatever comes to you, the Holy Spirit is present to lead you in the way of Jesus Christ our Lord.

My Octopus Teacher

This documentary is a wonderful example of how creation is drawn into relationship. We are created in the image of God to be in relationship with one another and the creation that surrounds us.

The filmography left me in awe as it takes the viewer to the wonders of the ocean. The majestic nature of the filming is a beauty that cannot be simply viewed above the water. Craig Foster’s revelation of the life in the depths of the water is one that few will see in a lifetime. There is a respect that is built and you can see his deep abiding love and care for the world that surrounds him.

The gift of being able to learn from creation in the most unlikely of creatures is an opportunity that can draw one closer to the divine. Foster, referring to the octopus, says, “What she taught me was to feel. . . that you’re part of this place, not a visitor. That’s a huge difference.” Isn’t that what we all want? To feel part of something and to be alive and whole. For Foster to welcome us into his world requires vulnerability and he does it magnificently. The realization of this world also speaks to the call for action on climate change.

This documentary will leave you in awe and pull on some of your heartstrings. It is one to return to time and again to realize the connection of all in creation.

Hope Born on Christmas

December 24, 2020

Luke 2:1-14

​            Like many people, I grew up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was a staple for the season and one that my family looked forward to watching again and again. As I reflect on that time in my early childhood, it was also probably the first time I had heard the Gospel. Linus, stepping boldly out onto the stage and dropping his security blanket, revealed the true meaning of Christmas. A gospel first revealed two thousand years ago to startled shepherds keeping watch over their flocks at night. In that manger on the first Christmas, a hope was born into the world bearing a light for all.

           In this story of Christ’s birth, we have much in common with the shepherds. We, personally, are part of Christ’s family and called to the manger in a hopeful remembrance of that night when the angels brought the good news of the Messiah to the shepherds. Like the shepherds, we have the opportunity to leave this scene and share the good news with others as we glorify and praise the name of the Lord for all to hear.

            Unlike the shepherds, we know what to expect. This is a story that we have been sharing since the beginning of time. A prophecy that is foretold in Isaiah, that is revealed in the birth of Christ. While the shepherds knew the story from Isaiah, they most likely did not expect to be the recipients of such world changing news. To them it was an ordinary evening in the fields with no expectations of being led to such glory and wonder. Why the shepherds? Surely, there were others worthier. Why not the religious in the temple praying? Why not the devout that followed the law of the prophets?

            The shepherds, while Jewish, could not make it to the temple because of their commitments to the flocks in the field. Their responsibility to the sheep outweighed for them any other practices. Being a shepherd was an entry level job. Quite often it would go to the youngest son in the family to care for the flocks. It was a thankless job, yet the shepherds were responsible for their family’s well-being. If you recall, David was the youngest son of Jesse and when Samuel told Jesse to bring him in from the fields, the Lord told Samuel to anoint David as the next king of Israel. David was a shepherd. Jesus’ lineage is traced back to David and the reason that Mary and Joseph have returned to Bethlehem for the census. And here we find other shepherds, multiple generations later, being the first to hear of the glory on this wonderous evening. As much as others have talked down the image of the shepherd as being dirty and of bad moral character, I am not quite buying into that image. The shepherds leave the scene of the manger going home glorifying and praising God. They were now messengers of the Good News!

            It is no mistake that Jesus will take on the image of the shepherd when he begins his ministry. The responsibility, care, love, and longing for all to see the light and experience hope is what drives his ministry. It is what will bring the world together in peace. These shepherds out in the field the night Jesus was born had these same qualities. God honored these shepherds by the appearance of the angels, and it was God that wanted to bring the message to all people. Time and time again, God is welcoming the unlikely into the story.

            It continues in Luke’s gospel with Mary, a teenage mother who was not prepared to have a child but said yes. Joseph, a reluctant father who nearly left Mary, but was reassured by God that everything was going to work out as planned and said yes. Shepherds in the field going about business as usual and while startled by the angels, say yes to going to see the child lying in a manger. These are reminders for us as God’s faithful people to be prepared and say yes when we hear God calling us to the wonderous possibilities established for all of humanity in this beautiful creation.

            It did not take much to get the shepherds attention as they were surrounded with sheep in the field. This is where we encounter a difference between us and the shepherds. We have so much coming at us today from various social media channels and news sources that for us to be impressed really takes a lot. Our attention span has dwindled, and the scene of Jesus’ birth could easily be overlooked.  Once God grasps our attention a struggle with the notion of worthiness can ensue. Yet, this is precisely what is revealed for us in the birth of Christ.

            We are all worthy of the good news that is born for us this Christmas. We celebrate it time and time again because we need the reminder of Christ born into this world.  Knowing that God knows what it is like to be human, encountering struggles and challenges that come with living, is reassuring. The struggles and challenges of the past year have brought life to a standstill for many of us. As the church we are attempting to be innovative in sharing the Good News this Christmas Eve while ensuring that those we love are kept safe. Regardless of how we come to the manger, Christ is the same as he was yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

            While we celebrate the birth this evening, we are also being invited into the greater story.

Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds all said yes to the glorious news that broke into the world in that miraculous birth. We are invited to say yes to Christ that comes into the world bearing hope and good news for all. It is here that God’s love for the world is fully envisioned. May our hearts, minds, and souls be open to the invitation and embrace the opportunities that this evening reveals.

  • The opportunity to say yes to something that we do not fully understand yet sense the pull and tug on our hearts.
  • The opportunity to witness the herald of hope which turned the expectations of the world upside down in a Messiah that comes bearing love and a willingness to suffer and die for all.
  • The opportunity to be messengers ourselves and to continue sharing the good news of the Christ we find in the manger.

            We find ourselves this evening, as we do every Christmas Eve, reflecting on a newborn baby. Despite any fear that may arise from the unknown, let us go with hurried anticipation like those shepherds did over two thousand years ago. Let us give thanks and rejoice in the glory of the Messiah born on Christmas to bring God’s outpouring of love and hope to this broken world.

Who Are You?

December 13, 2020 (Advent 3)

John 1:6-8, 19-28

                If I met someone on the street fitting John the Baptist’s description in the Gospel of Mark last week a few thoughts would come to my mind. Dressed in clothes made of camel hair would single them out right away. It’s not too often you see someone wearing camel hair on the streets in Michigan, though in our winters, I can imagine it would keep you nice and warm. Second, his diet of locusts and honey does not sound appeasing by themselves and surely, he must be some sort of hippy or naturalist.

                We meet a different John the Baptist in the fourth Gospel. To clairfy, John the Baptist is not the author of the Gospel of John. Both individuals just happen to have the same name and were probably born at least a generation apart. John and Mark’s John the Baptist is busy preparing the way for the one who will come after him. In the Gospel of John, he does not stand out so much and his interaction with the priests and Levites clarifies who he is not. Both point to the Christ as being the light of the world and for people to follow him.

                The priests and Levites from Jerusalem long to know who John the Baptist is and what he does. His actions are outside of the realm of their expectations. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest himself, and John’s actions are not befitting of a priest’s son. You better watch out for those pastor’s kids!

                The questions that are asked of John remind me of the conversations we have with others when we first meet them. Isn’t one of the first questions always asked, “What do you do?” This is an easy go to and conversation starter. I have been asked this too many times to count and I know that I have utilized the question myself. It is easy. It doesn’t require any thinking on our part. I give credit to those individuals that come up with an off the wall title when someone asks them this question. Such as, Beverage Dissemination Officer for a bartender, Digital Overlord for a website manager, Wizard of Light Bulb Moments for a marketing director, or Retail Jedi for a shopping assistant.

                By learning what people do, it helps us categorize them. We can determine roughly how much their salary is and probably their education level. We do the same when we see a person’s house, the clothes they wear, or what they drive. Is this healthy? NO! While a job can reflect a person’s values and interest, that is not always the case. While one of my previous careers was an adult beverage slinger, or more precisely, a sales representative, it did not necessarily reflect my values and interest. Yes, I do like beer, but honestly, I think I drank more beer after I started seminary. The values of the owner and the company itself were far from my values. However, it was a job and it put food on the table for my family.

                While the priests and Levites are busy questioning John, he keeps responding in the negative. He is not the Messiah. No, he is not Elijah. No, he is not the prophet. If he would have answered yes to any one of these, they would have been satisfied and could have reported back who he was.

                The title which should truly make a difference for us and our lives, is Jesus Christ being the Light of the World. We should not be so much concerned with the titles that we are given or the ones that appear on our business cards. What Jesus wants to know, is whether or not we are following his call to be the light for others in the world that have not encountered him yet. Are we letting the light of Christ shine through and illumine our lives so that we too can be a beacon of hope for others that may need it?

                I know that for many of us, the light has been dim over the past several months. It is tough to stay positive and rejoice in the Word of the Lord when it seems that so many things in our world this year have been upended. Advent is a time that calls us back to the beginning of it all for us as Christians. While our gospel lessons so far this Advent have pointed to a time after Jesus’ birth and before the start of his ministry with John the Baptist, we are still awaiting to celebrate and recognize the incarnation that breaks open God’s gracious love for a world that is so much in need of hope and light.

                Hearing Mary’s words of praise in the Magnificat reminds us of the one that John the Baptist is pointing. While Mary finds the words of the Angel Gabriel difficult to comprehend, her praise, “for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed,” starts a litany of the wonders of the Lord and all God has done for creation. It is a crescendo into a birth that will forever change the nature of the world.

                When we get caught up in the details of what someone does for employment, what type of car they drive, the size of their house, or whether they wear designer clothes, we are stepping farther from the Light of Christ. The message John the Baptist witnesses to, reveals the light of Christ. His witness to the light is a reminder to us that nothing else matters. Instead of asking one another “what do you do?”, it would be better in serving Christ by asking, “what are you passionate about?”

                What is it that draws you to the light of Christ that is revealed to us in a newborn baby? And how is it that you are being illuminated by that light and in return sharing it with others?

                Relationships are beginning to matter more than ever as we dive deeper into this pandemic and we can grow spiritually and, in our relationships, as we ask who we are and not become focused on what we do. Let us not get caught up in the material entrapments of the world. Let us come to the manger and discover our identity in the hope found in the light of Christ.

Preparing the Way

December 6, 2020 (Advent 2)

Mark 1:1-8

            Earlier this week we received one of our first snow accumulations for the season, although if you look outside now, you couldn’t really tell. As December ushers in the snow, we are used to the month also ushering in many other activities. Preparations are usually underway for Christmas office parties and arrangements are being made for family to gather and celebrate the season. It is a joyous time of the year for many. That is not the case for everyone. For some, their preparation may mean gathering enough courage to face each day because this is the first holiday without a loved one.

            The pandemic we currently find ourselves in, means that many of us fall more into the category of dealing with loss instead of looking toward the joyous aspects of the holidays this year. Our lives have been turned upside down. Instead of making preparations for family to gather in person, we are exploring ways we can connect online. Instead of inundating the stores on black Friday, online shopping has went to new levels to the point that we better allow at least a couple of weeks for a package to ship if you want to have it in time for Christmas. Our preparations may look different this year. Amid our current situation, we have learned to adjust and prepare in different ways.

            The gospel of Mark is one of four stories that introduce us to Jesus Christ. And Mark starts out with stating the very focus of his writing. First, Jesus Christ is the center of what is to come. Second, Jesus is the Son of God. Third, this is the good news. While in the gospel of Mark, the birth narrative is skipped over and left to the other gospels, it still points to Jesus Christ as the beginning of the Good News. The gospel points to Isaiah as paving the way for this good news, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ ”

            John the Baptist is the messenger Isaiah is referring and a messenger that Mark chooses to highlight as he begins sharing the good news. John the Baptist has come to prepare the way of the Lord. John the Baptist is the forerunner to what is to come. He is the opening act to Jesus’ main stage. Quite often, these forerunners get little attention and are overshadowed by those whom they have prepared the way. For instance, did you know that Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus during the Civil Rights Era. Both Sarah Evans and Claudette Colvin refused to give up their bus seat to a white person before Rosa Parks. They were the forerunners to Rosa Parks and the movement that would become the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jan Hus was a forerunner to Martin Luther and helped shape some of his thoughts. What set Martin Luther apart was his timing and the fact he had the marvel of the printing press to his advantage. Just think, we could have been Hussite’s instead of Lutherans.

            These forerunners prepared the way for those that are more well known. To prepare the way does not come without sacrifice. The forerunners to Rosa Parks were arrested. Jan Hus was burned alive at the stake. John the Baptist would eventually be beheaded!

            Right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry we experience his humility. He honors John the Baptist and if you recall is insistent in being baptized by him and not the other way around as John thinks it should be.  We are getting a little ahead of ourselves though.

            John prepares the way for Jesus Christ by preparing the people. I am not sure how many of you are familiar with the musical Godspell. In one of the opening scenes, John the Baptist, sings “Prepare Ye;” it is wonderful and joyous. Set in the 1970’s, he calls people out from their current jobs. Sounds a lot like Jesus! John the Baptist was a forerunner. The people John calls come running to the park and dance around in a fountain, symbolizing their own baptisms. A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is what John the Baptist says he is going to do.

            Baptism is just one step on our way in the preparation for the Lord. While we are baptized in the Holy Spirit as John states, we are also washed clean of our sins through the wonderous water. We need a constant reminder of that baptism as we stray from the promises we make in baptism through our daily sins, both known and unknown.

            Struggling with repentance is not new and we all fall short of the glory of God. It can be difficult to repent and own up for the mistakes that are made in life. To admit that we are wrong and took a misstep requires courage and vulnerability. Making preparations for Christ calls us out of the status quo and into something new and wonderful. John the Baptist is the messenger and forerunner to the good news that Jesus Christ is going to reveal to the whole world.

            This particular season of Advent is unlike anything we have ever experienced in our lifetime. You are probably getting tired of hearing that as it has been referred to many things over the last several months. However, it is the truth. In our Advent Book Study, we are talking about what is making us weary. For some, the Christmas season may bring a weariness every year. For others, it may be a new feeling this year. I could almost guarantee that all of us are experiencing some form of weariness is this long drawn out pandemic, especially as we approach Christmas.

            In the midst of it, we can still make preparations. We can prepare to meet with family differently; we can make our purchases all online and pick them up curbside or have them delivered; we will also be preparing to worship in a different manner this Christmas. Those are the outward preparations.

            What are you doing to prepare your heart this Advent? Are you opening yourselves up to conversations with God and Jesus as you seek comfort and peace among the weariness? Are you turning to the story of a little baby born in Bethlehem and finding hope?

            It is that hope that Mark points to as he opens his gospel for us to hear, “This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There is not a better time than this Advent to come to the manger with an expectant hope as we look for Jesus in our midst to guide us and walk with us through these past months and whatever the new year may bring.

This is just the beginning of the good news as we await the coming of the Lord. In the meantime, let us prepare the way for our hearts to be opened and make preparations for others by being the hands and feet of God in our community today.

A Weary World: Reflections For a Blue Christmas by Kathy Escobar

This year is nothing like we anticipated. Who would have guessed back in January at the turn of the calendar, we would be distancing from one another and learning to live our lives in new ways? Kathy Escobar’s newest book, A Weary World: Reflections for a Blue Christmas is balm for the soul in such a time as this. We have lost out on many opportunities this past year, had plans upended, and have forgone not seeing family for months at a time. If you have a loved one in a senior living community, you may still have not been able to give them a hug, settling for talking to them with a pane of glass separating you. This year, it may not sound unreasonable to say that everyone is probably carrying a bit of weariness in their hearts. There is a lot of lost which has occurred in the past year and to celebrate Christmas like nothing has happened, would be denying the reality that we witness in our neighbors, friends and family. The entire world is weary amid the pandemic and talking about it could begin the healing as we move forward.

For those that have participated in Blue Christmas services around the longest night of the year, it can be somber and also reassuring to know that you are not the only one suffering amid a time of year that the majority of people think must be joyful. To venture into the entire Advent season with these reflections could seem like a bit much. However, Escobar writes, “It’s about honoring our weary hearts in a weary season in a weary world and traveling the road of Advent together as honestly as we can on a quest for encouragement, hope, and strength in the places we are currently living—emotionally, spiritually, and physically.” She does suggest that if you are currently finding yourself in a moment of extreme happiness, joy, and everything seems to be coming to you, this is probably not the Advent devotional you are looking for. There are countless others to choose from that may not seem quite as in the gut.

The foundations of this book grew out of her own weariness and sorrows following the suicide of her son. They did not witness any of the signs that he may be considering suicide and it left her and her husband battered and bruised as they tried to move forward, while unsure of what the next day will bring. She dreaded the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas knowing that it would be difficult, yet she knew that she was not alone, and many people suffered during this time of year. Her experience as a Pastor had revealed many of these same situations to her and now it was her family personally experiencing it.

The structure of the book is similar to that of many devotionals you could read to guide your prayer time. It covers the four weeks of Advent, beginning on the first Sunday. Each week has a theme which shapes the week to come. These are themes that call the reader into action and interaction with those around them. The theme for the first week is “Honoring Reality.” If you are aware of the holidays bringing about sorrow instead of joy, it is helpful to acknowledge that reality of where you find yourself.

The following three weeks of Advent follow with “Practicing Honesty,” “Embracing Paradox,” and “Borrowing Hope.” These are all actions that we desire to live up to for ourselves and in our interactions with the greater community. Practicing, embracing, and borrowing are actions that we can commit to as we journey in Advent. The idea of “Borrowing Hope” is a reality that may require permission. When you come to times when you struggle with hope, where can you find it around you? Where can the littlest bit of hope fan the flame for your own hope? The practices that conclude each week invite the reader to explore their relationship with God and what it can mean in their lives.

The devotional concludes with Christmas Eve and resting in the knowledge of Emmanuel, “God with Us”. This may be a hard concept to grasp when you are struggling, yet through the four weeks of Advent, Escobar desires to encourage others in their own suffering. Just maybe, as Advent concludes and you find yourself on the cusp of Christmas Eve, this devotional will allow you to start seeing the sign of hope that was missing at the beginning of the Advent season.

This is not simply a devotional. Escobar also includes resources for family and friends and ministry leaders that can be used to assist others walking through a Blue Christmas season. Providing some great questions to ask, it can open the opportunity for others to share their story and create a stronger sense of care and community. There are also Blue Christmas resources located at the end of the book which would allow a worship community to shape their own Blue Christmas service if they do not have any experience of doing so in the past. One last resource for groups, along with those included weekly in the devotional, is the publisher providing downloads on their website to guide a group discussion.

While this devotional may not be for everyone, I believe everyone could relate to aspects of it as we have ventured through this past year of uncertainty and not knowing what was going to happen next. These are great discussions that we must have and ones that draw us closer to the Kindom of God.

Thanks to the Englewood Review of Books for allowing me to review this titled and the publisher, WJK, for providing a copy. The original review can be found here.

God Wakes Us

Wake up of a girl stopping alarm clock

November 29, 2020 (Advent 1)

Mark 13:24-37

            As we sat down at the dining room table Thursday, it was quite different from past Thanksgivings. We chose to have Thanksgiving this year with just our household while also reaching out to family through the wonders of Zoom. I am thankful for opportunities to be able to see loved ones through the power of the internet. It also reminds me of the opportunities to be thankful for the things we were able to do this past year.

            One instance was our annual camping trip. I am thankful for our growing family as our children find significant others and we were able to spend some time together enjoying the wonders of God’s glorious creation. This year it also happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor shower. Several nights as a family we were able to go out to the beach and lay down to look up at the sky filled with so many stars.  The view is unimaginable to think of when we live within the city. Looking up at the countless stars, I was reminded of how great and wonderful our God is to place all of them in the sky. There is a wonder in that view, and it gives a glimpse into the mystery of our God. The sky is so vast that it is always impossible to have the entirety of it in your sight, so you keep scanning the stars waiting for the next meteor. Because of the massiveness of the sky, I would miss one or two meteors while someone else was able to catch a glimpse. The connectedness when we all had seen the same one was awesome as we reveled in its glory. Staring up at those stars also reminds us of how small we are compared to the rest of the universe.

            Jesus sets out in the gospel lesson to provide an apocalyptic image of his return. He is preparing the disciples for what lays ahead of them. He begins with darkness and the stars falling from the sky. It is quite the image and one that often will generate fear in some people. However, this is not the purpose of apocalyptic literature. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to inspire hope and not sow fear.

From Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures to Revelation in the New Testament, we read of a promise and hope in the promise which points us to an unflappable God that reigns down with mercy and love.

            It may be difficult to find the mercy and love that God promises to all of creation in the past eight months. From a pandemic that seems like a plague, to an election that divided many Americans,  to wars around the world, and civil unrest in our own country, it may seem as though we are living out the last days that much of the apocalyptic literature writes about. Yet, Jesus reminds us to keep awake because we do not know when the master of the house will return.

            If we look at the history of Mark’s Gospel, we will find out it was the first gospel written and provided a basis for both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel, thus the similarities. It was written thirty to forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Up to this time everything was shared through stories and word of mouth. It was written around the time of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and was most likely shaped around those events. Mark encouraged his community not to get involved in the revolt of the Jewish people against the Roman Empire.  This is a time of high tension for the followers of Jesus as they witness the destruction of a community in which they grew up. As Mark reflected on Jesus’ words, there is the thought which the day of the Lord must be near and surely not a generation will pass away before seeing that day.

            And yet, here we are. Still waiting with an impregnated hope and living in the promise of Jesus Christ. As we enter this Advent season, we come bearing deep wounds of events that have been cancelled and lives turned upside down as we face struggles and challenges which the majority have never had to even think about. God’s creation continues to groan and limp forward as we await something greater to come.

            As Christians, we are set apart by our faith, placing our hope in the promise that has echoed throughout the millennia. As we hear these words from Jesus, it is not a time to panic or to be set on edge. It is not a time to fear and bury our heads in the sand or snow depending upon where we live. It is not a time to fret.

            It is a time to be stirred. A time to be fully present to the season and contemplate on what Jesus’ birth means not just for us personally, but for all of creation. A time to be alert to those wonderous sightings of God in our world, like viewing a sky full of stars and witnessing meteors streak through the vastness of that sky. This past week in one of my morning devotions was the refrain:

Wake us to your presence, Lord: that we might not waste our times of trial.

            The trials we have faced for much of this past year have been debilitating. There are mornings that it is just enough to get out of bed and take a shower. We are in unfamiliar territory and it is easy to get tired when confronted with the unknown. Our bodies are so incredible in telling us what we need, and at times we also need to push ourselves to move forward. Our relationships are more important now than ever before, even if that means we cannot reach out and give someone a personal greeting face to face.

            It is times such as this that God invites us into the mystery. A mystery that has shaped our faith for the last two millennia. A mystery of God incarnate. God has come down to us in the form of a newborn baby to lead the way and give us a sign of hope. A sign that shows up in those very same stars that Jesus says will come falling down. A star that shines so brightly announcing the birth of a new reign of God. A time that God in Jesus walks among creation and is one with us in humanity. A time that we are invited to participate in the mystery of Christ’s reign in creation.

            As we are awakened and become alert, we learn about ourselves and the place of our community in the greater aspect of creation. The trials that we face today are only a step along the way to that glorious new creation that will come down to earth. We participate by meeting our friends and neighbors where they are. We stare up at the stars together and are reminded of how connected we truly are and how God’s creation is limitless. A creation that invites us to be an active part of the welcoming of a soon to be newborn baby.

            I leave you with a prayer from that same devotional I mentioned earlier:

What would you teach us today in our trials, Lord? Make us receptive. Help us to see your victory and compassion rather than look for every answer to our troubles. So make us expectant, Lord, and patient. AMEN

Book Review: Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell

“My Grandma kept cash in her bra.” What a way to start out a book on spirituality!

Rob Bell is at it again with another soul searching book that encourages the reader to look inside themselves and see the spirit within them. He writes of quarks and molecules and all things that make up our very beings. His work reads like the reader is listening to him think aloud for all to hear. Yet, there is something intriguing about this that encourages one to continue reading. At times you wonder where he is going and then you all of a sudden end up at a point you would have never expected.

Bell makes many leaders in the church uncomfortable as he addresses many of the topics that we as pastors are afraid to discuss in our own congregations. The interconnectedness that he writes about in all of creation is the very essence of spirituality.

He shares the journey from his time growing up to starting his own mega church, which he despises that term, to his current life in Los Angeles. The journey that God has led him on has shaped who he is and the Rob Bell that interacts with the reader in Everything is Spiritual.

Stop and think about the title for a moment. Everything is Spiritual. That is an incredible thought that plays out in a quick reading book of 300 pages. If you know Rob Bell books, it is not like your 300 page novel or typical memoir. It is written in though strands with no chapters. I leave you with this observation by Bell to contemplate:

We’re made of thingness,

we have life,

we have minds,

and also we have

souls.

As soul is real,

just as real as your skin and bones.

The mind thinks,

the soul knows.

Going Upriver

November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

There is a story of a town named Downriver. Some of you may have heard of this town. It was quaint and the people living there were very pleasant. They knew the happenings of their town and they enjoyed working together. There was no time more important where they needed to work together then when they discovered a body in the river struggling against the current to keep their head above water. Working together, they found a way to help the individual out of the raging waters.

       The next day, they discovered another body struggling in the water and since they devised a plan the day prior, it didn’t take them nearly as long to get the individual out of the water. This became a constant for the town of Downriver as they continued to rescue people from the river. We are now talking about several people a day that were in need of being rescued. This went on for years and it became such a common occurrence they were no longer surprised by those that were struggling against the raging water.

       The question was asked on occasion as to what was happening in the town of Upriver where the town of Downriver was having to rescue people from the raging waters. While the question was asked, there was so much to do that no one ever fully investigated. They accepted that there were people in the raging waters needing to be rescued.

       Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

       This morning I would like to turn our attention to the Hebrew scriptures and the lesson from Ezekiel. For hundreds of years, the people of Israel had been struggling with their kings. No one could match the prowess and leadership of King David. He was a great warrior and grew the empire of Israel. It would be continued by his son Solomon, but eventually Israel would struggle and lose their importance; being conquered by Babylon and sent into exile. Israel would experience kings that cared little for the people and were more enticed by the power and riches that came with being king.

If we read chapter 34 of Ezekiel in its entirety, we receive the background of our lectionary lesson, as well as the promise God makes to the people of Israel.

       Ezekiel uses the familiar image of the shepherd. It was common for the king at the time to be referred to as a shepherd because of his responsibility to oversee the kingdom. The image of the shepherd was political. No wonder the authorities in Jesus’ time knew they had to deal with him swiftly so that he would not upend their political system. Ezekiel is called to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, because they have been feeding themselves and not caring for the sheep. They would be the goats which Jesus refers to in the gospel lesson this morning.

       The shepherds of Israel have left the people in despair as they find themselves in exile, separated from a land that they have called home for centuries. The shepherds have fed themselves and have become fat and strong while the people of Israel have been weakened. They have counted the riches of the flock, such as the mutton and the wool, while giving no heed to the needs of the flock. The shepherds have not cared for the people of Israel as they should. As this has happened, the people have failed to look to the cause of their desperation, the immoral and unethical conduct of the shepherds. They have failed to look upriver to see what is causing their demise.

       The same can happen to humanity in any time and place. Whenever one’s personal needs are above the needs of the community an imbalance results where care and justice are not given equal measure. The Reign of God calls us to a place where we serve those in need and our needs are cared for as well. It is this Reign of God that Ezekiel reveals to us in his prophesy. It is the same Reign of God that Jesus promises to us in our gospel lesson.

       Ezekiel comes bearing a promise in the oracle he shares. Ezekiel reminds the people of Israel who God is. A God that will seek the lost sheep and return them to the flock. A God who will bring them back into a community from far scattered places.

A God who will feed them with good pasture and they will be comforted in being able to lie down in that pasture and take rest.

       God reveals a love of God’s very creation in the relationship with the people of Israel. It is also a relationship that embodies justice. It is the same justice and care kept in balance which we see reflected in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

       This Sunday we celebrate Reign of Christ Sunday to recognize Jesus as the ruler over all creation. This is our bridge from one church year to the next as we prepare for the coming of Advent and wait to celebrate the birth of the newborn Christ. It is today that we honor Jesus Christ as Lord, or shepherd, over all creation. As we rejoice in Christ’s Reign, we are invited to partake in the Reign of Christ here and now.

       Jesus invites us to go upriver to care for and seek justice for those that are struggling and in need. Those that are fragmented and broken need to know that they are loved and cared for by a loving God. We go upriver to find out why people hunger and thirst. We go upriver to sit with those hurting and in emotional distress. We go upriver to ensure that no one else falls in and struggles against the raging waters of an unforgiving river. We go upriver because Jesus has come to us to let us know that we too are loved and what God reveals to Ezekiel also rings true for us,  “You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God.”