Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Seventh Day of Christmas: Belief Makes a Difference

What we believe makes all the difference in the world.  What we believe determines what we do, how we think,  and how we live and treat one another.  What we believe makes possible the “new things” that can happen in  us and in the world on this seventh day of Christmas.   

We live in a physical universe.  This world, some say, operates according to the laws of nature and came into being with a “big bang” or was formed by some unconscious force.  I, on the other hand, believe that in addition to this physical world and those natural forces, there is One who gives meaning to all existence.  I believe God was before the world was created, and that God will be, even if this physical universe be rolled up like a scroll (Isa. 34:4).  God is not only the Creator, without whom the world would not be, but also the One who is constantly sustaining  and intervening in our history every step of the way.  Indeed, the order of nature, far from limiting God’s action in our present world, is dependent upon God’s purpose and is subservient to it.  This order is dependable, not because it is mechanical or unchangeable, but because it is purposeful and therefore intelligent.

God is a Person.  God is not an “it.” God is objective, not a creation of my fancies. I can talk to God (prayer).  God cares for every person and knows and loves us individually.  This conception of God is not something I’ve contrived.  It is the conception of God that underlies the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and one that gives the world meaning (at least for me).  God is a Person.  God has consciousness, God is able to be aware, God is able to have purposes, God is able to know and to care. We are made in this image—there is “that of God” in each of us—but we are not God.

If this “believing” of mine is not so, then all of my thoughts in Advent and Christmas about openness, expectancy, and annunciations are false.  If this “believing” is not so, what a dismal world this is!  And if it is not so, how do I make sense of my “self”—a person who is aware, a person who has purpose, a person who knows and cares? 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Sing a New Song

Anything happening?  Have you experienced an annunciation, a vision, or perhaps a dream?  Have you found the baby this Christmas as the wise persons and shepherds did on that first Christmas long ago? Trust me, something is happening whether you know it or not.  How can I say that?  I can say that because I believe with Thomas Merton, that the message of hope that Christmas brings is that God loves us whether we know it or not.  

My son, Paul, singing his new song
with a new guitar--one Christmas
"long, long ago,
in a galaxy far, far away"
In that sense, something is always happening  in us and in the world (and especially at Christmas) because Love is here embracing us and our world.  Our lives have been re-shaped by yet another year’s events, the joys and the sorrows, the loss and the gain, the good and the bad, and  we will soon move into a new year.  The song we sang in 1999 or in 2015 no longer fits our situation.  So much has happened in us and in the world we know and so much has changed. I am reminded of the song from Les Miserables, “There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.  There’s a pain goes on and on.  Empty chairs at empty tables, now my friends are dead and gone.”  Many of my friends are gone and will not be with me in 2016. I have no choice, you have no choice.  We will have to sing a new song. The songs we sang yesterday no longer fit the present time.

That new song is in you now waiting to be sung.  The lyrics are there already waiting to burst forth and fit themselves to the melody that is already playing within your heart.  The song is a gift—a Christmas gift on this sixth day.  Will you accept the new song and start singing?

Why not join Howard Thurman and say, “I Will Sing a New Song”

“The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out.
It has long ago been learned by heart;
It repeats itself over and over,
Bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit.

I will sing a new song.
I must learn the new song for the new needs.
I must fashion new words born of all the new growth
   of my life—of my mind—of my spirit.
I must prepare for new melodies that have 
   never been mine before,
That all that is within me may lift my voice unto God.
Therefore, I shall rejoice with each new day
And delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding.

I will sing, this day, a new song unto the Lord.”

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Fifth Day of Christmas: My Time; Your Time

We suffer today from what Elton Trueblood called the “disease of contemporaneity.”  We focus on the “present” and have distain for that which happened or was written a hundred or five hundred years ago.  We read the books on the New York Times list, but ignore those written in earlier times.   This penchant for only the contemporary means that we may never read François Fénelon’s (1651-1715) The Inner Life or any of his other writings.  

I could not resist using this photo--a moment in time!
I do not want you to miss Fénelon.  He wrote in one of his letters about “Time”:
“Time bears a very different aspect at different seasons of one’s life, but there is one maxim which applies equally to all seasons, namely, that none should go by uselessly; that every season carries with it various duties of God’s own appointing, and concerning the discharge of which we must give account to Him, since from the first to the last moment of life God never means us to look upon any time as purposeless, either to be used as our own apart from Him, or lost.  The important thing is to know how He would have us use it, and this is to be learned not by an eager and uneasy ardor, which is much more calculated to confuse than to enlighten us concerning our duties, but by pure and upright heart, seeking God in simplicity and diligence in receiving all of the experiences which He would provide us, for remember we lose time not only by doing nothing, or doing amiss, but also by doing things in themselves right, which things yet are not what God would have us do.  Our general rule for the right use of time is to accustom yourself to live in continual dependence upon the Spirit of God, receiving whatever He vouchsafes to give from one moment to another.”

What will God give in this moment—on this fifth day of Christmas?  What gift is to be received today?  

Again, Howard Thurman speaks, “I cannot say of my life that it is of no account, I cannot say of the time that I am living that nothing seems to be happening, because this is not one of the great and tempestuous or creative moments in human history or in the history of the world.  My time is my time, and I must live my time with as much fullness and significance as I am capable of, because my little segment of time is all the time I have.  I cannot wait to begin to live meaningfully when I will have more time, because all the time I can ever experience is the time interval of my moment, so that my minutes, my hours, my days, my months, must be full of my flavor and my meaning.”

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Fourth Day of Christmas: It Keeps on Ticking

This morning I had an appointment with my fifty-year-old cardiologist.  I knew and loved his parents who were frequent guests in our home and a part of our family life for many years.  I’ve known their son, now a cardiologist, since he was six years old.  How strange it seemed this morning to have that six-year old (I still see him as six years old) placing a stethoscope to my chest and back, listening to the beat of my heart.  “It is still ticking and ticking well,” he says,  “I’ll see you next year.”

Some are probably already saying, “See you next year” to Christmas 2015.  But Christmas is still ticking away—it is only the fourth day.  Christmas is one of those events that keeps on ticking through the labyrinth of time.  Christmas was the moment in the life of Israel in which a baby was born.  In this baby many saw that for which their hearts had hungered and their dreams had foretold.   He grew to adulthood and exhibited in word and deed a fresh new quality of the age-old response of the spirit of man to the call of God.  God was the center of his life.  “His was a vision,” writes Thurman, “of a great creative ideal that all men [and women] are children of God, that the normal relation of one person to another is love (anything else is against life), and that there is a Personal Power, God, equally available to rich and poor, to Jew and Gentile, to men and women, to the wise and the foolish, to the just and the unjust.”

For some of us, Christmas was and continues to be, a turning point in human history marking the moment when a new meaning was given to the promises of old:  The eyes of the blind are opened, the captives set free, and the dream has become a real possibility—a “friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”  

Astronomical 14th Century Clock in Prague
Christmas announces that there is a Presence in this world, a Light that lighteth every man and woman that cometh into this world.  Within my heart and yours, in the heart of every new baby born, the ticking goes on and will go on until the dream is fulfilled.  You can’t say to Christmas, “See you next year!”  Christmas is still ticking.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Third Day of Christmas: Surrendering to the Divine Promise

There is a crucial word that must be part of the Advent and Christmas message, a word I have not  yet used. It is a word most of us avoid because it means something we do not easily handle and something we resist with all our being.  That word is “surrender.”  The act of surrender is repugnant to us.  It means “to cease resistance to an enemy or an opponent and submit to their authority.” The synonyms for the word do not help us at all and perhaps are even more repulsive to our spirits—words like,  capitulation, submission, yielding, succumbing, acquiescence, and resignation.  Who is willing to do that?  Who wants to do that?

Yet this word “surrender” is central to the preposterous promise of Advent and the deeper meaning of Christmas.  No annunciation can be heard without yielding.  A visit to the manger of Bethlehem (within the heart) is impossible without capitulating to the “song of the angels” as the shepherds did, or succumbing to the urge to “follow that Star” as the wise persons did long ago. 

The preposterous promise is that God has acted, is acting, and will continue to act until God’s dream for this world becomes a reality.  Christmas is about believing this promise.  It is about believing that the “Holy Spirit can overshadow us,” like Mary, and that a new birth can and will occur in us.  This is the work of Christmas, to believe at the deepest level of our beings that this promise can come true.  So it is, if we want anything to happen in us this Christmas, we have to surrender (submit, capitulate, yield, and succumb) to the promise and such surrendering goes against our grain!

Come to think of it, we can’t even pray without surrendering—as in this prayer written by Howard Thurman:

Our little lives, our big problems—these we place upon Thy altar!
Brood over our spirits, our Father,
Blow upon whatever dream Thou hast for us
That there may glow once again upon our hearths,
The fire of Thy contagion.
Pour out upon us whatever our spirits need of shock, of lift, of release
That we may find strength for these days—
Courage and hope for tomorrow.
In confidence we rest in Thy sustaining grace
Which makes possible triumph in defeat, gain in loss, and love in hate.
We rejoice this day to say:

Our little lives, our big problems—these we place upon Thy altar!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Second Day of Christmas: Luke Is Born!

Has anything happened?  Some “new thing,” some “new birth,” some “annunciation,” some “new dream,” some “new discovery?”  Don’t fret.  There are still eleven days of Christmas for something to happen—today being the second day.  There is still time for any of the above to occur within you, within me, and within the world!

Our son, Luke, was born thirty-nine years ago today.  What a gift he was to us that Christmas and what a gift ever since!  Can you imagine, though, being born the day after Christmas?  The big day is over for most, and all that’s left is crumbled wrapping paper, tangled ribbons, scattered toys and gifts, worn-out and over-fed adults, and left-overs in the refrigerator.  We tried our best over the years to make Luke’s Day (the second Day of Christmas) as exciting and special as that Day before, but I’m not sure we ever succeeded.  Early on, I think Luke himself tried to help, insisting on blueberry pie instead of a birthday cake!  Anything—anything—to make the “Day After” as special as the “Day Before!”  Well, Luke, let me say as plain as I can for all to read, your birthday has been one of the most important days in my life and every day since has been special because you are!  Every Christmas since has been extraordinary because you have been with us—and the “Day After” has been, since your birth, even more important to us than the “Day Before!”

There are Twelve Days of Christmas—each of these days can be just as important and special to us as Christmas Day.  Luke came to us the “Day After.”  What gift might each of us receive if we remain open to the possibility and attempt to make each of the eleven days remaining as significant as the “Day Before?”

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Last Day of Advent: “We Are Visited”

Have you heard an annunciation, seen a star, or been visited by some Gabriel during this period of Advent?  We are never alone.  We are visited in so many ways.  As Howard Thurman writes in The Mood of Christmas,  “We are visited in ways that we can understand and in ways that are beyond our understanding, by highlights, great moments of inspiration, quiet reassurances of grace, simple manifestations of gratuitous expressions of the goodness of life.”

The genius of Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol lies in his awareness that we, like Ebenezer Scrooge, are visited at Christmas.  We are visited by  loved ones, by friends, and old acquaintances long since gone (as Scrooge was visited by his partner Jacob Marley).  We remember those who carried the light against the darkness for us, those who guided and helped us along our way.  They visit us.  The Spirit of Christmas Past, Present and Future visit us too, if we pause and open the inner inn within our hearts and make room for them.  

We are visited.  We are never alone.  Who is to say that when I remember one of the “Star Persons” of my life and feel her close even now, as though visiting with me, that that experience is not similar to that of Gabriel approaching Mary?  Who does not, at this time of year, recall and feel visited by the Spirit of  Christmases Past, Present and Future?  Are these visits the “stars” that can guide us, or perhaps the annunciations that will give us new purpose?  Advent means “to come” and in this period many visitors have come to you  and me (in the deep recesses of our hearts).  

Just because the season of Advent comes to an end today does not mean that these visits will cease.  If we keep the Advent Spirit of openness and receptivity such visits may actually increase.  May I remind you too, that there are yet Twelve Days of Christmas, during which all kinds of “new things” can happen!

“And ye, beneath Life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.

O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Twenty-fifth Day of Advent: Bethlehem Revisited

In 1964 Douglas V. Steere delivered a Christmas sermon, “Bethlehem Revisited” which was later printed in pamphlet form.  I read it every year at this time.  The sermon begins:  “Christmas is a time when we are invited to revisit Bethlehem and to reconsider its miracle.  Bethlehem does not change and the miracle does not change, but we change, and the eyes with which we are able to see change.  Hence what we see from year to year is not the same, which makes this annual visit an adventure rather than a routine pilgrimage.”  Steere was not speaking of a visit to present-day Bethlehem, but rather a visit to the inner Bethlehem of the heart where we ponder  what the wondrous seed, Jesus, that was sown in the heart of the world, really means to our lives.

“I often ponder,” he said, “about how, if there is a God who cares for what happens to human beings on this or any planet, and if he was consumed with love and knew that only by love could men and animals and his world of nature live peacefully together, and he wanted to communicate, to disclose, to unveil this to them most effectively, how he would do it.”

“I cannot see,” Steere continues, “the life of Jesus as other than God trying to disclose his love for us and his attempt, at any price, to show us that the cosmos is grounded in love.  All hate, all sin, all discord, all clefts, all ignorance, all confusion will finally give way to love.  But this love, like a strip of wood, has its grain which must be followed.  If we follow this grain we will find that we must change the patterns in which we have previously cast our lives.  And I do not see how God could have made this disclosure more effectively than by placing his love in the body of a child, who was to become a man, and letting this cosmic message shine through the material envelope of a human life.”  Advent is a time for revisiting the Bethlehem in our hearts.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Twenty-fourth Day of Advent: A Strange Irony

The season of Advent is about God coming, God breaking through, God participating in bringing forth the Dream:  “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”  Could this really be true?  We wait, we watch, we hope, and we anticipate, but does anything really come of it?  Martin Luther suggested that God comes in many masks, in many guises, and it is sometimes difficult for us see God’s comings.  

One can, I suppose, claim a solitary communion wth God, basking in an interior place where there is  “Just Jesus and me, and we have this wonderful relationship.”  Many persons with this piousness and religiosity are the very same people who are hateful and hostile toward others.  Much of the current rhetoric of fear, and some of the most terrifying hate organizations are made up of people who say they are devout and have this kind of communion with God. That bothers me.

It bothers me because when I am experiencing a broken relationship, or am out of harmony with, or spouting hateful things about others, my whole life seems out of kilter.  I attempt to find that solitary communion with God, but God seems far away when those desert places, deep valleys, lofty mountains and  hills are separating me from a brother or a sister.   I have discovered that I can only draw close to God when all of these fade away  and I can finally draw close to, and find some semblance of peace with, my brothers and sisters.  Could it be, yes, of course it is so, God comes to us in our brothers and sisters and without embracing them we will probably, very likely, miss God’s coming in this Advent time.

“If a person says she loves God, whom she has not seen,
 and does not love her sister who is with her,
is a liar and the truth does not dwell in her.” 

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Twenty-third Day of Advent: I Experienced The Promise Breaking Forth from the Bud

Yesterday I wrote of the Promise of Advent.  Last night I saw that Promise breaking forth from the bud.  We were invited to dinner by our son Paul and his wife, Helen.  After dinner we attended an Annual Christmas Concert at an Interfaith Center.  That’s where I experienced the Promise breaking forth.

Hundreds of people were lined up waiting for the doors to open.  Hundreds of people filed into the auditorium filling every available seat.  “Three cheeks to a chair,” someone announced, so “everyone can have a place to sit” and the audience responded. An orchestra of at least 40, a Children’s Choir of over 30, and an Adult Choir of nearly 100 were seated before us.  Above their heads a banner proclaimed:  “All Faiths, All Ages, All Races, All Sexes.”  

I looked at the program and noted names representing many different nationalities and cultures:  Youstra, Scimonelli, Kim, Javadov, Onukwugna, Cueves, Ndekwu, and Williams.  I looked at the audience and saw the same phenomena.  There were people of many colors, ages and appearances there. Some of the men were bald, others had hair.  Some in the audience were young, some were old, and some in-between.  What a mixture—people, some not so well off, others well-to-do (you can always tell)—all together in one place.  This is God’s Dream, I thought, coming to fruition, “a friendly world of friendly folk beneath a friendly sky.”  This is the Promise of Advent, even now breaking forth from the bud.  That’s how I perceived it. 

“Joy to the world! (we sang together) the Lord has come:  Let earth receive her King.

Let every heart prepare him room, And heav’n and nature sing…”
Thanks, Paul & Helen, for the evening!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Twenty-second Day of Advent: The Promise

In December 2004, Time magazine published “Secrets of the Nativity.”  The article indicated that Biblical scholars struggle with the nativity narratives—found only in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.  The author raised a lot of questions. “Where was Jesus actually born?  Who showed up to celebrate the baby’s arrival?  What about the virgin birth?  Who were the wisemen?”  Does it really matter?

Christmas is about NOW—not then!  It is about believing that God really is with us!  We aren’t called to believe anything in particular about angels, wise persons or a virgin birth.  We are called to believe that something happened then, maybe in Bethlehem, maybe in Nazareth (who cares) that changed the course of history and by that Advent brought into being a whole new order of life.  This new order hasn’t come to fulfillment yet, but the Promise is that it is on the way.  The shape of that new order was described by Isaiah: 

The wolf shall live with sheep,
Wales, 2015
The leopard shall lie down with the kid
The calf and young lion shall grow up together
The cow and the bear shall be friends
And their young shall lie down together.

Isaiah takes creatures of nature, who are normally enemies of one another, who generally feed upon one another, and describes them living together in peace and contentment as an image of the new order God has inaugurated.  An order where natural enemies become friends.  Do we really buy into the Christmas Promise?  The Promise is not a fact or a joy to be realized in some other world.  It is here and now for those who see.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Twenty-first Day of Advent: “Comfort, Comfort My People”

The Good News, the Gospel, is about knowing and experiencing comfort—not comfort in the sense of having things, or being at peace, nor comfort in terms of the absence of pain, hurt, loss, illness, or suffering, but a comfort that makes one feel that no matter what may be happening now, or what  will be happening tomorrow, all is well, and all will be well.  Comfort means to “impart strength and hope.”  Comfort is to feel that we are in good hands, hands that will not drop us, hands that will never let us go.  “Fear not!”

It is hard to believe or feel or think of comfort in the midst of our present day dilemmas.  “In the world you will have trouble,” Jesus said.  No kidding!  How can anyone find “strength and hope” in a world like this?  Is this world a fearful place or is it a God-bathed world?  Christmas suggests the latter. Christmas tells us that God broke through and has continued to break through ever since, saying, “Comfort, comfort my people (Isaiah 40:1).”

Advent is a time for openness and expectancy.  “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone opens the door I will come in and dwell with her/him.”  This amazing presence of love, will slip through even if that door is opened by just a crack.  God is that eager to break through to you and to me and give us comfort—the strength and hope we need for the living of these days.

Sunset, Organ Pipe National Park, AZ
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of ‘Peace on earth, good will to men!’

(And) In despair I bowed my head;
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men!’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men!”

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Twentieth Day of Advent: In His Image

Some there are who say that God is but a figment of our human imagination.  It is not God who created humankind, but rather it is humankind that has created God.  From whence then, did this wonderful gift of imagination come from?  Howard Thurman tells of a young sociologist who gave a lecture on “The Philosophy of a Fool.”  He ended the first part of his address with these words:  “On the seventh day, therefore, God could not rest.  In the morning and the evening God busied himself with terrible and beautiful concoctions and in the twilight of the seventh day God finished that which is of more import than the beasts of the earth and the fish of the sea and the lights of the firmament.  And God called it Imagination because it was made in His own image; and those unto whom it is given shall see God.”  “Imagination,” Thurman writes, “is the angelos of God.”

When my granddaughter, Eleni, was visiting with us last year she said a most beautiful thing.  She said she loved to visit Grandad’s house because it “had imagination.” Now I don’t know exactly what Eleni meant in saying that—I’ll leave that to her imagination—but her words struck a deep place within me.   

Imagination is a great gift.  It enables the artist to see beyond what is and to create that beyond on canvas.  It provides the child with the wonderful capacity to experience make-believe Narnia-type worlds.  It gives us the gift of memory.  Without imagination we would not dream, or create, or hope.  Without imagination we could never love, because love is the ability to put  (imagine) oneself in the life of another and to look at life through the other’s eyes, to feel and think and react to the other, even as one remains oneself.  

Without Imagination, the angelos of God, we would only be our puny little self.  There would be no hope for anything beyond.  Just myself and myself alone, knowing that without imagination, nothing could ever happen that would go beyond my present little me.  Open the gift,  “for those unto whom it is given shall see God.”

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Nineteenth Day of Advent: The Heart of the Season

Seeing Howard Thurman’s little book, The Mood of Christmas, here on my desk this morning, brings my spiritual mentor of over forty years to the forefront of my mind.  How I miss Gordon!  I have a large notebook of our correspondence through the years and I remember, with deep affection, our many times together at lunch and walking and talking together.  My world is not the same without him.  It was Gordon who gave me Thurman’s book years ago, and it has become my practice to read it each Advent and Christmas season.  

Gordon once wrote, “What is the heart of this amazing season?  What happened in that Holy Birth that has brought surprise, awe, and wonder to all who have really journeyed to Bethlehem?  The key word is kenosis—a New Testament Greek word meaning self-emptying, pouring out.  The astounding affirmation that people of faith make is that God self-emptied into Jesus, becoming weak, helpless, vulnerable, in real danger [just as we have come into this world].  Only thus could God be Emmanuel—God with us.  This is a mystery so profound that whenever I glimpse its deeper meaning, it slips away.  I affirm it often, but do I really believe it?  Is God that passionate for each of us?”

The event in Bethlehem of long ago was wrapped up by the Gospel writers with pretty paper and tied up with colorful ribbons with a little tinsel added to make it appealing (angels, a star, and all the rest).  Religion is always wrapped and expressed in poetic, mystical and imaginative terms.  Sometimes that pretty paper wrapped in ribbon becomes a barrier for thoughtful people.  It is not the wrappings on which we need focus.  It is the Gift!  Could it really be that God is that passionate for each of us?

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Eighteenth Day of Advent: “Come on In!”

This story is not original with me and I don’t know where I found it, but I’d like to share it. The children’s Christmas pageant was about to begin.  All the children had rehearsed their lines and were now dressed in their costumes.  Some were wearing angel costumes with tinseled-edged wings.  Others were dressed up like the wise persons with Burger King crowns and fake beards.  There were also a few bathrobe-clad shepherd types. Mary, Joseph, and the Baby (played by a life-sized rubber ball) were ready for the curtain to rise.

Photo by Nancy M. Reynolds
All were happy to have a part in the pageant, except for one little boy who was cast as the innkeeper.  The little innkeeper was saddened as he thought about his one line in the play.  When Joseph knocked on the door of the inn, the innkeeper was to simply say;  “I have no room!”  The thought of turning away the Baby Jesus was breaking the little innkeeper’s heart.  

The pageant began.  All went well until Joseph knocked on the door of the inn.  The innkeeper opened the door and Joseph asked, “Do you have any room?”  There was a long silence.  Supposing the little innkeeper to have forgotten his line, the director could be heard whispering a prompt from behind the cardboard scenery.

Suddenly the sad countenance of the child innkeeper turned into a glad grin and he began to speak.  His line came out loud and clear:  “Come on in!  I’ve got plenty of room!”  The pageant ended right there, as the audience stood to their feet with applause and outrageous joy.

“Redeemer, come, with us abide;
our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel;

thy grace and love in us reveal.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Seventeenth Day of Advent: An Opening for Change

Advent reminds me that God is a Person.  How can God be otherwise if we hold that God is like Jesus?  The Christmas narrative is about God coming into the world as a person, a human-being like you and me, but unique.  This is a statement of faith, but it is also a rational statement  based on history, tradition, scripture, and experience. Throughout the centuries verifiable evidence abounds that lives have been changed and made new by faith in this personal God/Jesus.  Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, Francis of Assisi, Theresa of Avila, John Woolman, George Fox, John Wesley, Albert Schweitzer, and Rufus Jones are but a few examples. They claimed their commitment to the person of God/Jesus as the reason for their “new life.” They demonstrated that new life in their time.  They wrote about their conversations, experiences, and relationships with the Person of God/Jesus. 

What is this “new life” all about?  Not one of those persons mentioned above was perfect.  They all had their faults and made their mistakes.  What made the difference?  Jesus was somehow  born in them!  Jesus’ very mentality came to dominate their own.  “Do you not realize,” said Paul, “that Jesus Christ is in you?”  The lives of countless men and women through 2000 years of history tell us that it is really possible for a person, responding to God’s call, to have a measure of the spirit of Christ.  

Perhaps a new birth certificate
will be needed this Advent
Think what it would mean if we were to have a measure of the spirit of Christ in us and in our society just now?  Think what it would mean if Jesus were to be born in us this Advent?  We would not be hearing disparaging racial comments for one thing, because Jesus sees each individual as an unconditional object of God’s care and concern.  Each person, regardless of race, color or creed is not only politically equal but spiritually a brother, a sister.  My, what a difference Advent can make if we are open to the possibilities.  

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Sixteenth Day of Advent: “Overthrowing the Existing Order”

I wonder how any of us can claim discipleship to One who disturbed history so much and yet be so comfortable with what is!  I’m aware of how I’ve compromised and adjusted the Christian faith to suit my fancy.  Have you done that, too?  These adjustments to the faith make it possible for us to avoid dealing with what it really means to be a Christian. “We are called,” according to the Apostle Paul, “to overthrow the existing order.” 

We all agree that society must change, but just how does one go about doing that?  I don’t really know.  How does one take a social stand without arrogance and without a sense of moral superiority?  I don’t know.  I’m deeply perplexed.  I know, given our chronic human behavior, that there will be no Utopia, but I also know that we, with God’s aid, can make our world a better place for all people. The Christian faith begins with the individual, but if it ends there—it ends.  

Lunar Eclipse, Wales UK 2015
Advent is a time of transition—moving us and our world to a place it has never been before.  How do we get from here to there?  I think St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer, acted out, might be a good start.

Make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Fifteenth Day of Advent: A Time of Great Expectancy

Advent is about preparing, waiting, hoping, expecting, and praying that somehow God will come in some new way, not just to us personally, but to all people everywhere.  It is a time to look for a burning bush in the desert of life, for a pillar of cloud in the day, a pillar of fire in the darkness, a dream, or perhaps even an annunciation.  History is a record of God’s comings, both in our personal history and in the history of the world.  Because God came once upon a time must mean that God can and will come now.  But how, when, where?  Will I be able to discern that coming?  Will I have eyes to see, ears to hear, mind to receive, and sense to perceive that coming?   Yesterday morning God came to me in Thelma!  Looking back, I can see now that God has come to me through many of those who have walked with me and with whom I have walked.  But I must not limit God’s ways of coming, nor relegate those comings only to some yesterday.  How is God going to come this Advent?

"Here and now I will do a new thing; this moment
it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it?
Will Gabriel come with an annunciation?  Does God have some special message for us?  Will we hear it  as Mary did or dream a dream as Joseph did?  Why not?  If it happened then it can happen now.   Now don’t get all disturbed, I doubt that God is going to announce that you are pregnant with child.  But God might very well announce that you are pregnant with love and that you have some special loving to do.  God might say you are pregnant with a word of hope you need to deliver to someone who is in doubt, pain, or crippled by difficulty.  God may call you to “stand up and be counted” in some issue of the moment.  God comes sometimes with annunciations!

Do you expect anything new to happen within you this Advent?  Do you anticipate God coming to you with an annunciation?  We’ve made God’s annunciations in the Christmas story so spiritual, religious, other-worldly, and angelic, that we miss the gist of the story itself. If you don’t expect it to happen, don’t worry, it won’t happen.  Expect to hear, expect to dream some special dream—and maybe, just maybe—you will.  God comes this way, sometimes.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Fourteenth Day of Advent: God Comes to Me in Thelma

Thelma will be 100 years old on December 28th.  She is a member of Harmony Baptist Church in West Virginia.  That was the first church I ever served as a pastor.  How they put up with me for those three years as a ministerial student, I shall never know.  What I do know is that Thelma has been a faithful friend for fifty years, writing twice a year to share her life and the life of the congregation with me.  She and her husband, Jim, came to my college graduation and visited us several times after we moved away from West Virginia.  Two years ago we visited Thelma at her home where she still manages to take care of herself and enjoyed her warm hospitality.

Thelma, my faithful friend for 50 years.
“Last December,” Thelma writes in her most recent letter, “they told me my aorta valve was not doing much work and I needed the valve replaced….I finally decided to take a chance and have the operation.” She is doing wonderfully well now, one year later, and extended a warm invitation for us to attend her 100th birthday party!

Thelma has had a wonderful life, but not without difficulties.  She is revered by her son and daughter, respected by her friends, and deeply loved by her church community.  She has learned, in the midst of all the ups and downs to view life with sincere gratitude.  All who rub shoulders with Thelma get a sense of “that of God” within her.  

Now it comes to me, as I hold Thelma in my bundle this Advent morning, that while I thought I was ministering to her and the congregation of Harmony those long years ago, the truth was, and still  is, that she and that congregation ministered to me.  God comes to me in Thelma!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Thirteenth Day of Advent: The Miracle of Dialogue

Advent is a time of promise:  A new thing is about to happen.  Advent is a time of waiting:  Waiting for mountains to be brought low and crooked places made straight.  Advent is a time of movement:  Movement forward not backward.  Advent is special kairos time.  Hallmark TV movies and old films like “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s A Wonderful Life” suggest that Christmas is a miraculous time.  In The Mood of Christmas,  Howard Thurman wrote, “when we think of Christmas, let us think of it as a time when we remember the graces of life”….let us “seize upon the atmosphere created during this period, to let it tutor our own spirits in kindness and imaginative sympathy.”

One of the rarest “graces of life” in our time is “The Miracle of Dialogue,” the title of a book written by Reuel L.Howe years ago.  What a miracle it would be if we could (in our family, in our community, in our society, and in the political realm) talk and listen to each other.  “When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.”  Real dialogue is a reciprocal relationship in which each party or person “experiences the other side” so that each informs and learns.  In true dialogue there is a mutual responsibility to listen and hear.  Just listening and hearing each other can release us from the prisons of our prejudices, defenses and vulnerability (the barriers that keep us apart).  The fruits of dialogue would create all kinds of other miracles that we can’t even begin to imagine.  Think how it would be if we were listening, hearing, and talking to each other!

Montrose, Colorado
Is God going to do new things this Advent?  If so, I pray that  among those “new things” we might be given one of the essential graces of life, the miracle of dialogue, a grace we have abandoned almost completely in our time.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Twelfth Day of Advent: The Light of the Past, Lights the Present

The Old Testament has so much to say to us in Advent.  The history of the people of Israel is our history.  The history of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and all other peoples from the ancient past are our stories too.  They are all God’s story from the perspective of faith—a history not measured by a calendar, but by God’s on-going activity and purpose in the midst of a shattered and wounded world. 

Jeremiah, Amos, Isaiah, Hosea and Habakkuk, and a host of others, in the midst of their troubled times, announced that God was present and active in it all. We can disparage that historical record by saying it is simply a collection of silly stories, as many do, or we can accept their witness as true and become open to what God may be doing in our own time and situation.  If God was active then, God is active now.  Advent is all about discerning how God comes to us in the present moment.

This discernment is often short-circuited by our thinking that Advent is about waiting for Christmas to come.  Bethlehem’s story is history—it is not the end of the story.  God came then, yes, but God has continued to come through 2000 years of history since, and God comes now in this moment.  “Can you not perceive it?” 

Now I show you new things,
hidden things which you did not know before.
They were not created long ago,
but in this very hour;
you had never heard of them 
before today! (Isaiah 48:6-7)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Eleventh Day of Advent: Two Habakkuks at Breakfast

Though feeling a bit “under the weather” this morning, I did not want to miss the opportunity to be treated to breakfast by my friend, Vernon.  I filled in for him when he was ill and he promised me a breakfast or two.  As we talked together I soon realized that we were just like Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet (605 B.C.).  We are both tormented  and distressed by the present rhetoric and prejudices being expressed in our society.  How can this kind of stuff prevail after our historical experiences of two World Wars in which we mistreated our German, Japanese and other U.S. citizens?  How is it that we are saying so many derogatory things that are reminiscent of those earlier times?  Why are some capitalizing on fear? We agonized over the fact that churches are not speaking out loudly enough.  And then the big question:  Why is it that God seems to tolerate such a repeat of history? Habakkuk felt the same.  Like Vernon and I, he asked, “How can this be?  How long will it go on?   Why is it going on?

Habakkuk prayed for an explanation and didn’t get one!  The darkness in the world gets darker.  The anguish in the heart goes deeper and the abhorrent “stuff” continues.  But Habakkuk didn’t give up.  He decided to wait for another encounter with God and for a more comprehensive answer to his questions:
“I will take my stand to watch
And station myself on the tower,
And look forth to see what He will say to me,
And what I will answer concerning my complaint 
(Habakkuk 2:1)

God’s answer will happen, Habakkuk affirms, and “if it seem slow, wait for it.”  Habakkuk had the power to wait and “in the fulness of time” he encounters God (not his faith in God, not his belief in God—but the living God).  In this encounter Habakkuk discovers that even though the world may be dismal, GOD IS IN IT!
“Though the fig tree do not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines,
The produce of the olive fail
And the fields yield no food,
The flock be cut off from the fold
And there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord
I will joy in the God of my salvation 
(Habakkuk 3:17-18).”