Sunday, December 31, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 8

January 1, 2007 (New Year's Day)

Adoration of Magi, by unknown Chinese artist; period unknown.

At my church this morning, we elected to celebrate Epiphany Sunday. I thought it would be appropriate to share an Adoration of the Magi today. I wish I could find out more about this particular representation, and that it were of better quality.

I have a love-hate relationship with the carol "We Three Kings." First of all, the magi were not kings! Secondly, very few verse-refrain hymns remain interesting by the third or fourth time we sing the refrains. This one is a good example. (We sang it this morning, and sang the refrain only after the first and last verses. We also used a "brisk" rather than "stately" tempo, which helps a great deal.)

What I genuinely like about the carol, however, is what it has to teach us about the nature of the gifts the magi brought to the holy Child. Here are those interior verses:

"Born a king on Bethlehem's plain, gold I bring to crown him again;
King forever, ceasing never, over us all to reign.

"Frankincense to offer have I; incense owns a Deity nigh;
Prayer and praising, voices raising, worshiping God on high.

"Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, laid in the stone-cold tomb."

This carol is yet another reminder that the Christmas story is not pretty, neat, or sentimental. We Christians celebrate the coming of God, the Sovereign of the Universe, into human history. He was born like any other human being, but into poverty, violence, and political chaos. Christ did not come into the world in order to be a cute little baby we can cuddle for a few days each year, then forget about until it's time for Easter lilies. Mary's infant grew up to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him there. Baby Jesus was born to die. The King of Kings, whose coming was announced by the herald angel, would be mocked as "King of the Jews" just before his execution. And this King, God, and Sacrifice calls us with his eternal "Follow Me."

Am I willing to lay at the cradle of the little King the gold that I would prefer to hoard? The incense of prayer and praise as the God he is, when I find myself yet again on the throne of my own life? The anointing essence of the confession of my sin, that I may be crucified with him so that he lives in me?

Or will I merely sing, bored, about the star with royal beauty bright? Will I miss entirely the Savior to whom that star showed a band of determined Gentile astrologers the way so long ago?

Alleluia! Alleluia! Sounds through the earth and skies--and through me.

Side note:

In reviewing the past week's posts, I was struck by how exclusively Western European the art has been. It's been an education for me to hunt for good art which is in the public domain, in which Nativity themes portray non-European figures. There is a great deal of excellent work being done (and this is also true of North American and European art), but copyright issues make it illegal or unethical for me to post most of them here. In fact, I was careless about this with my post for December 25; I'll be removing the Ina Hecker icon detail in a few minutes and replacing it with something from the public domain.

If anyone reading this would like to suggest good Nativity-theme art for me to consider for the remainder of this series, I'd love to check out any links you may have.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 7

December 31, 2006 (New Year's Eve)

The Nativity, Lorenzo Lotto, 1523

See him at Bethlehem, laid in a manger,
Christ our Redeemer, asleep in the hay;
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation:
A child with his mother that first Christmas day.
(From "Candlelight Carol," by John Rutter)

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 6

The Nativity, from the Collins Book of Hours, 1430-1440

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Nativity, for me, is that GOD came to be one of us. How could the One who created all that is, trust us enough to become a helpless infant, born at a dangerous time into poverty? I think Christina Rossetti shared this sense of wonderment at how low God stooped at the Incarnation:

"Enough for him, whom cherubim worship night and day,
A breastful of milk and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for him whom angels fall down before,
The ox and ass and cattle which adore."
(from Christina Rossetti, "In the Bleak Midwinter")

Friday, December 29, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 5

Adoration of the Shepherds (detail), Jacopo Negretti, 1520-1525

The newborn King's first visitors were not "desirables." Considered marginal Jews at best, Jewish shepherds were despised by others. Isn't it interesting that, as in so many future instances, it is the lowly and rejected ones of society who recognized the truth of who Christ was and who told others the good news of his coming? Praise be to God!

See how the shepherds, summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too would thither bend our joyful footsteps;
O come, let us adore him,
Christ, the Lord!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 4

The Nativity, El Greco, 1603-1605

El Greco's style always fascinates me. Just as an early music teacher told me I have "square ears" (meaning he thought my love for eight-bar phrases and conventional cadence harmonies was somewhat dull), I tend to have "square eyes" when it comes to art. Far ahead of his time, El Greco bent and even broke some of the artistic conventions of his day, particularly with his use of color, perspective, and in the poses of his subjects.

In this example, there is much for even my "square eyes" to like. I love the way El Greco has captured the simplicity of Mary and Joseph. Rather than romaticizing them, he shows them as real people. The Child is portrayed similarly. The artist portrays the starkness of the stable; can't you almost smell the ox? Only the pure whiteness of the Infant's blanket gives a sense of the supernatural here. (I especially like that Madonna is clothed in red. It suits her!)

"The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.
I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky,
And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 3

(Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst, 1622)

This painting is one of many I like because of its portrayal of light. How fitting that the infant Light of the World should be painted in such a way that he himself provides the light for the stable.

"Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love's pure light! Radiant beams from thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace; Jesus, Lord, at thy birth!"

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 2

(Poussin, The Nativity, 1650s)

Don't you love the looks of wonder on Mary's and Joseph's faces? It makes me think of Michael Card's song about Joseph, "How Can It Be?":

"Lord, all my life I've been a simple carpenter; how can I raise a King?"

Twelve Days of Christmas: Christmas Day (1)

Icon detail, Mother of God of Vladimir, 12th century

"Did you know...when you kissed your little baby, you kissed the face of God?"

(from Mary, Did You Know?" by Lowry & Greene)

Advent, Week 4: Christmas Eve (late)

Well, typically for me, the final post for Advent is late! Chalk it up to a marathon workday for church on the day itself, and a recuperative day yesterday.

In the midst of a strenuous Christmas Eve morning and evening, I had an interesting mid-day. My pastor and I have some parallels in our life, though she is a widow about ten years older than I am, with several grown children and grandchildren, and I am single with no children. Because my year has been an uncertain one, with various periods of unemployment and underemployment on the day job front, I was creative with gifts of time in addition to very modest purchased gifts throughout the year. One gift that had not been "redeemed" until yesterday was one to my pastor, a gift of labor at church or parsonage, from her birthday earlier in the year. I reminded her of this when she mentioned she wouldn't have time to go somewhere for lunch after worship, since she was expecting her son in for Christmas at some point later in the day and wanted to do some last-minute cleaning. It was good to be allowed to help in this; we both agreed that the work was easier and went faster when shared.

When I finished my part at the parsonage, I went back over to the church kitchen, where I had a crockpot of soup cooking. I set up for our simple supper, which was waiting for us after our 6:00 service. For over an hour, we nibbled on soup and biscuits and relaxed, sans shoes, reflecting on the blessings of the day and what was yet to come at the 11:00 worship service.

This might not seem like much for those with busy families, but it is a very rare experience for me. Many years single, I haven't often shared meals with anyone except two cats. (Forgive me, girls, but I sometimes long for human conversation. Yours is somewhat beyond me!) I live simply, in a neighborhood far from where I work, where I basically sleep and take care of basic needs. My pastor gave me a gift I don't think she realizes: her companionship. She was Christ to me on what is often a very lonely day.

Thank you, dear Jesus, for shining through our church's shepherd on the day we celebrate your birth. Thank you for our meal and conversation, and for work lightened through the sharing. And for the gift of your coming yet again into my life and that of our church, I thank you most of all.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Advent, Week 3: Thursday - Saturday

Recommended readings from the fourth Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):
Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:47-55 or

Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

God is turning the world right side-up! To me that is what the Magnificat (Mary's song of praise) is all about. God has regarded our helpless state (as sinners all), and has helped us by sending us a Savior. This is what we wait for (symbolically) during Advent. We remember the first waiting for Christ, we recall our own helpless state before we first welcomed the Savior into our lives, and we wait again for the Savior's return.

What I find fascinating is that Mary, a first-century Jew, sang about this coming as present fact. Though only in the beginnings of her pregnancy with the Holy Child, she celebrated what God was doing, as though it were already done. The longer I live, the more confused I tend to get about the yet-not-yet-ness of God's Reign. I suspect that this is because God has already accomplished salvation, even as in our time and space-bound reality, Christ is still reconciling all creation to God. Sometimes I see it as God having "turned loose" salvation in our time and space and it's a glorious, complex, seeing-it-only-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-canvas work in progress. Sometimes I just say "thank you" to God and leave off wordering about it.

Too seldom, however, do I sing for joy because of God's mercy in working salvation in our sinful world--and in sinful me. Dear God, accept today my echo of Mary's Magnificat. You have helped your servant Israel, and specifically you have helped, over and over again, this least of your ingrafted servants: me!

Holy is your name, and holy is the Child about to be born, again, in our midst!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Advent, Week 3: Monday - Wednesday

Recommended readings from the third Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

The lesson from Zephaniah from last week's Lectionary readings is one of my favorites in the entire Bible. First of all, as a self-respecting singer, it's the only explicit example we have of God the Singer. (The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing - Zephaniah 3:17, NRSV)

I love this passage for a more general, wonderful reason, however. This portrays the extravagant joy of God over the return of a precious people. It also shows the Christian the joy God has over each of us when we return to the heart of God. It also shows us that God doesn't wait passively, wringing hands, wishing for us to come back. Instead, God is moving heaven and earth to bring us home. The coming of Christ which we celebrate in Advent, shows us the extent to which God was willing to go in order to secure our safe homecoming. That God loves us each and all, this much, humbles my heart and makes me want to sing for joy.

That joyful song is my prayer of gratitude today. Won't you sing your own song of joy, too?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Advent, Week 3: Sunday

Recommended readings from the third Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

Here I sit, at the church office computer, in a very unusual situation. I have virtually nothing I have to do this morning except lead an opening and a closing hymn. No choir to rehearse and lead. No scurrying about, looking for misplaced robes and hijacked music folders. No spot checks and chancel furniture adjustments.

Why the "vacation"? Because our church's liturgical dance/movement group is presenting the Christmas story this morning. I could pick about it here and there (they use only canned music, it's generally the same music and choreography year to year), but such criticisms are minor. The group is girls from first through twelfth grade. Though the majority are members/daughters of members of the congregation, a significant number come from unchurched families. Because our sanctuary is relatively small and therefore does not lend itself to conventional liturgical dance per se, many years ago the group leaders developed a blend of more static movement and American Sign Language. They dress in long-sleeved, full skirted (mid-calf length) white dresses (lavender for first-year girls) with white tights and ballet shoes, and have a variety of floral garlands they wear on their heads. For this production, as for the one they do each year for the Easter sunrise service, however, various girls dress as their assigned characters, while the "chorus" full group wears their usual white/lavender. (I say all this to assure any readers who object to liturgical dance because they don't like bare arms, legs and feet; our girls are completely covered except for hands, necks, and heads. And if you object to liturgical dance on other grounds, we'll have to agree to disagree.)

How does their pending presentation this morning relate to this week's Lectionary readings? I think of this verse from the Psalm lesson (First Song of Isaiah):

And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. (Isaiah 12:4, NRSV)

The girls are "making known the deeds of the LORD" in a beautiful, meaningful way. We Christians read and hear the "old, old story" so often that we sometimes take it for granted. But when we witness it told in a new way, it's startlingly real to us.

I also think about the experience of the children themselves. They will know and treasure the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the rest of their lives, thanks to this group's seasonal reenactments of those portions of the gospel story. That makes worthwhile all the hard work the girls and their leaders do. We promise, when children are baptized, that we will nurture and teach them so that, in time and with God's help, they accept for themselves the salvation God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 12:6, NRSV)

Advent, Week 2: Friday & Saturday

(It's now Sunday; the children's pageant is today. Blogging time has been at a premium, and writing ideas have not been forthcoming. Please continue to the post for Advent, Week 3: Sunday)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Advent, Week 2: Thursday

Recommended readings from the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I'm not feeling well this morning and the creative juices just aren't flowing. Since I have to leave soon for work, I thought I'd just post a link to a song that fits well with this past Sunday's Old Testament lesson, called "Refiner's Fire," by Brian Doerksen. It's one of the better worship songs out there, in my opinion. It's my prayer today.

"I choose to be holy..."

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advent, Week 2: Wednesday

Recommended readings from the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):
Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I'm really glad I waited until tonight to write something. I've just come from our church's youth classroom, which has been taken over by the mission team in preparation for their trip to the Texas-Mexico border and Mexico, which begins Sunday after worship. It's a cross between a food pantry and Santa's workshop! Let me tell you why.

This mission trip is a tradition of our church dating back a number of years. Usually, the various groups of the church contribute items of a utilitarian nature (supplies for a struggling church, canned and staple foods, school supplies, and shoes) and a few "goodies" like hard candies and oranges. In addition, children were encouraged to bring the unopened toys from their fast-food meals throughout the year, as a sacrificial gift. (Though I have no preschool children, I have worked with many of them, and I can appreciate that not opening and playing with these little trinkets takes a real sacrifice for our kids!) On the mission trip, each child recipient would get a small bag filled with school supplies and goodies and one of the drive-through toys, and the mothers would get a few cans of food and some rice and beans. Even for such modest gifts, the recipients were genuinely grateful.

But this year...THIS YEAR! WOW! We began Advent with a church-wide Fiesta in the evening. The tree in Fellowship Hall was decorated with bright paper chains, big tissue paper flowers, and a wild-colored sombrero on top. People have been encouraged since mid-November to bring both the staple goods and children's gifts. Sunday School class parties have had their members bring gifts for Mexico and the Border instead of traditional gift exchanges. The response has been an avalanche of generosity. Every kind of toy imaginable (except super-big ones like bicycles, which wouldn't fit in the trailers and bus) is now in the youth room.

Another cool thing we do each year has also been dedicated for the mission trip this year: "Beary Merry Christmas." People bring teddy bears and other stuffed toys to the sanctuary throughout early Advent. The bears sit in the pews day and night. When services are in progress or when people take some personal time in the sanctuary, you'll find the bears being hugged and prayed for. Though that may sound odd, it's a wonderful thing, because the prayers are actually for the child who will receive that particular bear. In the past, law enforcement and shelters have received them. (Last year, our county sheriff's dept. received nearly 150 stuffed animals to give to children who had to be removed from their homes for various reasons.) But all the bears are going south this year. As always, they represent the love and prayers of a modest north Texas congregation. I'm told that for most of the children, it will be the first stuffed animal they've ever received.

There will be some renovation work for the teams to do on a couple of houses and on a church building that doubles as a community center. Some of the gifts provided are "kitchen shower" gifts for that church's first-ever kitchen.

Finally, for the first time, the team members are going to present a full five-day VBS. One of our bilingual members has translated the materials we've used here and will organize a mixed team of local and mission team teachers and helpers. They expect over 100 children.

Some of our most gifted teachers are going. Our miracle-working handyman is on the team. The flightiest (but most pure-hearted) junior high boy I've ever worked with is going, and he invited his best friend who's going as well. The team members are young and old (including junior high youth and great-grandparents and all ages in-between), male and female, long-time members and new Christians...a real cross-section of our congregation. It hurts me to my core that I can't take the time to go. SOMEday, I will!

The people in South Texas and Mexico who are expecting our church members, are also expecting the kinds of gifts we've given in the past. Are they ever going to be surprised this year! With the full body of Christ here in our little area behind this effort, the Holy Spirit seems to have multiplied our offerings exponentially. And I don't mean only the Christmas gifts.

That's a faint taste of how God intends to bless us, I think. We kinda, sorta know that heaven's going to be way cool. But God KNOWS! Our God is lavish, extravagant, and prodigal (in the actual meaning of that word). Cups are going to run SO over, that there's going to be a gushing wide river of blessing before this world and time itself are no more. We Christians get the foretaste, and we are called to pass this good news along.

As our mission trippers prepare for the mission trip, I'm reminded to keep on preparing my own life to welcome Jesus even more fully.

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11, NRSV)

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Advent, Week 2: Sunday - Tuesday

Recommended readings from the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I have a few minutes before a church event this evening. I was reading at my friend Dr. Platypus's blog just now, which sparked inspiration for a catch-up post here at my own. (Sunday was our choir cantata and we're on the one-week countdown for the children's program next Sunday--what little time I've had to blog, I haven't had a single coherent thought! So thanks, Dr. P.!)

I used to love singing in my home church's folk choir. One of the songs we'd sing at this time of year was "Mary, Mary, what you gonna name that baby?" It's an Avery and Marsh collaboration, and strangely enough I can't find any online source so that I can post a link to the full text. But perhaps a brief description will give you the gist.

It's in the key of D minor and has a fairly slow, almost African-American spiritual style. The refrain consists of the title line, followed by "What you gonna call that holy baby?" Then four verses follow, most effectively sung by four different soloists, who in turn describe themselves us all as sheep looking for someone to guide them, as slaves needing a master, as hungry and poor and needing to be saved, and kings needing to be ruled. Then, following a voiced "Shhh," the full group agrees with the soloist, "Why don't we call him Shepherd/Lord/Savior/King?"

We sang the only choir arrangement of this song I know of, this past Sunday morning with my choir. It was part of an Advent service that was part cantata, part lessons and carols format. The late Lloyd Pfautsch arranged it, which is quite remarkable; Dr. Pfautsch, who was professor of choral conducting at SMU and a preeminent sacred choral composer, wasn't exactly the "folk choir" sort. But it is a nice little arrangement, which I was proud of my choir and our four soloists for presenting so well.

Mary named her baby "Jesus," the one who saves. As Emmanuel ("God with us"), he truly is our Savior, Shepherd, Lord, and King. As I review the many names of Jesus, I marvel at how he meets each of us where we are and how we need him, if we truly seek him.

Dr. P. wrote about "Mary, Did You Know?" on his blog. I don't think Mary could have known all that her coming Baby would become. But I rejoice in her "Yes!" to God's plan, in the birth of her son Jesus, and in what he means to me and to us all.

Come to my heart, Lord Jesus; there is room in my heart for thee.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Advent, Week 1: Saturday - POSADA Chainblog 2006

Recommended readings from the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

I suggest reading Malachi 3:1-4 and Philippians 1:3-11 in preparation for tomorrow's Old Testament and Epistle lessons.

I am hosting Mary and Joseph today for Andii Bowsher's wonderful Posada chainblog project. If you wish to follow the blog's progress, visit my friend Dr. Platypus tomorrow (Sunday, Dec. 10).

What always strikes me about this part of the Nativity story is the sheer danger of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was not an easy trip, even had Mary not been pregnant. It's easy for us to say, from the safety of 2,000+ years of history, that God protected them. It's true, but a very different thing for them to live in that trust than for us to celebrate it. I suspect that when I finally see "face to face" once this life is over, I will recognize the providence of God in many ways that I could not while on earth. The fact is, it took obedience, guts, and courage for the Holy Couple to trek from Galilee to the City of David. Then, to add insult to injury, they had to pay for the "privilege" of being enrolled in the census. They not only had to be obedient to the will of God, they had to be immediately obedient to the Roman authorities.

What a fascinating chain of events began with Mary's "Let it be with me according to your word" assent to God's will! Saying "yes" to God nearly always marks the beginning of an adventure.

As one of the pre-December 24 "hosts" of the Posada, I can give shelter only for this one day. It is my assigned role to send Mary and Joseph on their way with a "Sorry, no room" message. Realizing that fact has made me reflect, in writing this, on the times I have done exactly the same thing to "the least of these." There have been times when I've welcomed and served the least, as well.

Lord Jesus, please forgive my refusals and accept the halting welcomes you've received from me. Help me be more faithful, even as I now symbolically turn away your earthly parents.

Jennie hosted the Posada yesterday here. For more on the Posada chainblog, read Andii's initial post here.

Here is the rest of the Posada hosting schedule:

Friday, December 08, 2006

Advent, Week 1: Friday

Recommended readings from the second Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

Read Luke 1:68-79, then Luke 3:1-6.

Jesus would later say that there was no greater human being than John the Baptist, yet even the least in God's reign were greater than he. Riddle? Perhaps. Yet in the paradox, we can find a challenge to us today. It is one thing to "prepare the way of the Lord," and another to live in that way. John knew very well that his task was to announce the coming of the Messiah. But Jesus didn't tell people to announce his coming; that had already occured. He told us all to follow him and to do all the things that he taught.

So the question, at least for me today, is this: Will I talk about the Kingdom, or live in the Kingdom? Similarly, it's easy for me to say that I'll live a Kingdom life, yet I must do the actual work of living it.

The other thing to remember is, not everyone who is invited into God's reign will be convinced by our words about it. Yet another reason to live it as well. There is a place for gracious words; the Holy Spirit within us can be trusted to guide us when and how to speak them. That same Spirit will guide our actions as well.

Will the people I meet today, know that they've met a Christian? How will they know? Lord Jesus, help me live "a life that becomes the gospel" today, for your sake.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Advent, Week 1: Thursday

Recommended readings from the first Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Luke 21:25-28 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near." (NRSV)
The return of Jesus promises to be the ultimate "big event." It depends on who Jesus is to me, whether I will experience his return with eagerness or with terror. And I don't mean how I understand heaven and hell, sin and punishment. I mean simply, how will it be for me to experience the phenomenon itself. Will I be "afraid, very afraid"? The signs will be awesome (in the old sense of the word). Will I recognize them for what they are? Will I be so familiar with Jesus that I will trust him "even so"?

I suppose none of us can really know the answer to that, but I do expect to swallow the very real human reaction of fear, in order to watch eagerly the coming of my Lord. I expect the signs his return to take me by surprise, because he told us clearly that none of us may know the exact time. But I also expect to recognize those signs. They don't have to be literally the same as the various examples we're given in the apocalyptic passages of Scripture; apocalyptic is not meant to be taken literally. But with the Holy Spirit's help, I will recognize the signs. I will recognize Jesus. I will recognize the long-promised redemption of God in its fullness.

Meanwhile, there is Kingdom work to do. That's why I expect to be surprised when the signs present themselves. Being busy about God's task means I don't have the idle luxury of time to spend on fruitless calculations of days and hours, or literal would-be interpretations of figurative passages. Study, yes, but not for the sake of "cracking the code." I'm called to study for the sake of knowing God better through knowing the words of God found in the Scriptures. By learning with this as my goal, I will be better equipped to work ever more faithfully in my Lord's coming Kingdom.

Come, Lord Jesus, and by your help may I be found faithful upon your return.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Advent, Week 1: Wednesday

Recommended readings from the first Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

"And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you." (1 Thess. 3:12, NRSV)

What a key summary verse for us as Christians! May the Source of our love, the Lord Jesus Christ, grow love within us for one another and for everyone! Oh, yes, cries my soul!

But wait! If love increases, what must decrease?

Envy. Boasting. Arrogance. Rudeness. Insisting on my own way. Being irritable. Being resentful. Finding satisfaction in wrongdoing. Refusing to bear difficulties. Doubt. Despair. Refusing to endure whatever comes my way for the sake of love. (1 Cor. 13: 4-7)

If I am really serious about wanting to grow in love (or, in Wesleyan terms, "go onto perfection in love"), I've got to cooperate with God in removing that which kills love in my life.

It hurts, God. Some of these things have wrapped themselves around my heart and soul, binding them in sinful, unloving ways. Nevertheless, I choose love over self. This day, this moment. Make me more like my Savior.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Advent, Week 1: Tuesday

Recommended readings from the first Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:15 reads, "In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." (NRSV)

There are times that I long for the Day of the Lord, that long-promised day when all that is wrong will be set to rights, when Jesus comes and (pardon the Texas euphemism here) opens up a can of whup-*ss on all the sorry folks who refuse to do what's right. Religiously popular theology tells us that when the world is at its nasty, sinful worst, we should piously pray for Jesus to come quickly.

Problem is, that's not the way it works. Jesus didn't call us (the church) his body for nothing. Jesus came and showed us quite definitively what it takes to turn this bad old world upside down and right-side up. He already won the victory over sin and death! Our job is supposed to be a bright, salty one in which we "infect" this world with the righteousness of Christ, which is his gracious gift to us. Jesus IS our Righteousness. So what are we doing with that righteousness?

It seems to me that we Christians too often separate ourselves from any inconvenient hint of the evil of the outside "heathen" world, creating a "Christian" safety zone for us and ours. Unfortunately, when we do that, virtually nothing gets done about the work Christ commanded us to do: give up our own lives in order to serve those the Lord died to save. We're so busy saving our lives that we forget we're supposed to lose them! Meanwhile, unrighteous people never even know there's a different way to live, because they never see it in us. We hide behind the doors of our homes and churches and workplaces, trying to keep ourselves as pure as possible by avoiding the messiness of ordinary people just trying to survive in a cutthroat world.

It's good to remember that entire nations are judged by the righteousness of their people, according to Matthew 25:31-46. If we Christians guard ourselves and our perception of our own righteousness so zealously that we don't "do justly" to those around us, I don't see any way that our individual nations are going to become righteous. Justice and righteousness are paired together in the Jeremiah text for a good reason: there is no righteousness where there is no justice, and vice versa.

A "justice" system is simply an elaborate means of exacting vengeance when it is the tool of unrighteous people. When a theological or philosophical worldview requires the subjugation of one class of people by another in the name of "biblical righteousness," it proves itself both unbiblical and unrighteous by its inherent injustice. When we proudly proclaim ourselves righteous yet engage in unjust behavior toward others, we are deceived at best, and are more likely simply liars. We dare not excuse our unjust behavior then hide behind "Jesus is my Righteousness." The just humbly follow God and are genuinely kind toward their neighbors (Micah 6:8). In other words, true justice naturally follows when we embrace the humility required by the practice of godly grace. If we desire justice and kindness from God, we must "go and do likewise."

Advent reminds us that Christ is coming. We cannot know when, though the signs will be clear. There is nothing wrong with praying along with the ancient church, "Come, Lord Jesus!" But let us do so while engaged wholeheartedly in emulating the humble righteousness of the Lord we claim to follow. Let us be his hands and feet and voice and heart in the midst of the sinful world he considered worth everything he had to give. May our prayer be active and effective as we spend ourselves in service to the least and the lost.

Advent, Week 1: Monday

Recommended readings from the first Sunday of Advent (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25 discusses the humility necessary to live in right relationship with God. Reading this Psalm responsively in worship yesterday brought home to me the truth of this principle. God desires to lead us in the way we should go, but we must be willing to be led. Not by pet theologies, not by self-designated human "leaders," not by our own plans and purposes, but by no one less than the Holy One who created and loves us.

Part of the "house cleaning" time of Advent is to sweep out the self-worship that is at the heart of all sin. Really, that's key: who's on the throne of my life, me or God? If I occupy that throne, there's no way God can lead me. If God occupies it, however, even if progress seems slow, I will be walking in God's way. Sooner or later, the growth I seek will be evident.

I intend to focus today on the details of everyday living, asking myself this question: "Who, or what, is directing my action in this specific matter?" Come to think of it, that can be a good form of prayer. God will reveal the true answer, without fail.

May you--and I--walk with God this day and all our days.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Fast Away the Old Year Passes: Advent Begins Tomorrow

First Sunday of Advent

Recommended reading (from the Revised Common Lectionary):

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

I love this icon! It reminds me that the Lord Jesus Christ is not "real" to some people, because they haven't yet experienced his presence within them. During this season of Advent, we prepare for all three comings of the Christ: into human history in human form, in final victory, and his continual coming into the human heart, to be born in each of us.

Just wishing doesn't make it so. Christ does not force his way into a life crammed full of lesser things. Advent is a kind of "house cleaning," of making room for the One who is Life itself to us.

This week's Lectionary readings, particularly the Gospel reading, deal with the signs of Christ's coming. While the Christina Rossetti text "Love Came Down at Christmas" is not primarily an Advent text, I believe it fits especially well this first Sunday of the year:

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and neighbor,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Happy New Year to all, and a blessed Advent to you!