Journey Through Advent – Day 23 – Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve is fast approaching here in Vermont. The sun is already getting lower in the sky, and the candles are out at the church, ready to go. As for me, I’m getting there. A few more things to do, and I’ll be ready too.
But, really, I’d love just one more day. One more day to wrap presents. One more day to build that gingerbread house we bought. One more day to write the sermon I want to preach tonight. The reality, though, is whether I’m ready or not, Christmas is coming.
That’s true spiritually as well. Our spiritual life may be something that we put on a shelf and say “I’ll get to it soon…when I have everything else done…when I’m ready.” But, ready or not, God comes and breaks into our life when we least expect it.
The story of Jesus’ birth is a story of an unexpected arrival. Mary wasn’t expecting to become pregnant. The inn wasn’t expecting for the parents of God incarnate to come knocking on the door. And they weren’t expecting to be turned away and given just a barn and a manger.
The world wasn’t ready either. They weren’t ready for a savior who came in the form of a powerless baby. They weren’t ready for the person he grew up to become. And they weren’t ready for the things he preached. Things like peace, and justice, and loving each other as much as we love ourselves.
The world is still not ready for this. And that’s why we need it more than ever.
Tonight, ready or not, open your heart up to the one who has come to change everything. Open your heart up not just to the child in the story we read, but to the living Christ who wants to enter into our hearts. Open your heart up to what is about to happen next, if you only follow that Christ with your whole life. Because, ready or not, something wonderful is waiting.
May Christ’s love bless you this Christmas, and always.

Journey Through Advent – Day 22

photo copyright Bleacher Report

photo copyright Bleacher Report

Sunday afternoons are for football in my house. After church I come home, change into jeans and a sweatshirt, and wait for the games. It’s one of the few times in the week where I relax and do nothing other than watch TV.

But, really, I don’t actually relax much. Not this year, at least. You see, I’m a Washington Redskins fan. I have been my whole life. My family has cheered for them since they moved to my father’s hometown in 1937. And while I love them, the past twenty years or so have not been their finest. We haven’t won the Super Bowl since 1992. We haven’t even been in the playoffs since 2007.

But this year is different. We have a quarterback who connects, a team that works together, and momentum. Last week we moved into first place in the NFC East. My dad and I excitedly text and call each other throughout the games, holding out for a win. And then at the end of each Sunday, I can’t wait for the next one. I can’t wait to see if we are going to go all the way this year. Because, goodness knows, we’ve waited long enough.

Being a Washington football fan has taught me about waiting. And that’s good practice for Advent. Because Advent is all about waiting. It’s about waiting for Christmas eve, and the celebration of Christ’s birth. It’s about waiting for the world to be transformed by God’s love. It’s all about holy waiting and watching and preparing.

There’s a difference between football and Advent, though.

Try as I might, I can’t do anything to make my team win from my living room in Vermont. I can’t block. I can’t pass. I can’t sack the opposing team’s quarterback. Even as I hold my breath and wait for a completion, I can’t will the ball into the hands of the guy in the end zone.

But Advent is different. We aren’t watching Advent play out on TV. We aren’t even just sitting in the stadium. In Advent, we’re actually players on the field. We might not be Jesus, but we are preparing our world for Jesus. We are actively involved in transforming the world from a place of violence and hatred and pain to one of hope and joy and love and peace.

We cheer on Sundays for teams to advance a ball down a field in a game that, while fun to watch, doesn’t really change the world. But do we give the same amount of energy and excitement to something that can change the world? Do we do the work of peacemaking and the pursuit of justice the same level of attention and importance? Do we take the Advent message so seriously that, while maybe we aren’t donning jerseys and face paint, everyone who sees us will know who we really worship?

Advent is about perspective. It’s about looking at our lives and seeing what matters most. This afternoon I’ll watch the game. But tomorrow I hope that I cheer just as hard for something I can actually a part of. And then, I hope I suit up, and get out on that field. At its best, Advent can be a time when we make a choice to join the team, and to change the world. We don’t have to wait on the sidelines anymore.

Journey Through Advent – Day 21

IMG_0155This time of year many of us are feeling two things: overjoyed and overwhelmed. There is so much about the Christmas season that is wonderful. But at the same time there is so much on our to-do lists, that we might not give ourselves much time to feel that joy.

This is often especially true for clergy. Tomorrow at my church we have the children’s Christmas pageant. Tomorrow afternoon my wife leads a Lessons and Carols service at another church. And Christmas eve we are back at my church for two services. That means that this weekend is being spent writing sermons, recruiting ushers, and making sure that all the details are taken care of.But at the same time, this year I’ve been consciously trying to devote more time to actually sitting back and enjoying this season. I’ve spent evenings sitting by the tree, helping to bake cookies, and writing Christmas cards. Sometimes I’ve thought to myself, “but there’s so much else that I should be doing…how can I take a break and do these things?” I’ve been talking back to that voice this year. I’ve been reminding myself that God wants us to feel joy, and what better joy than that which is spent celebrating the season of Christ’s birth?

We are in the last days of Advent. Two nights from now we enter the season of Christmas joyously. But today you may be feeling like another obligation is the last thing on your list. A Christmas eve service might feel like another “to do” item on your list. A luxury you can’t take the time for amidst cooking, wrapping presents, and entertaining guests. 
Do it anyway. Mostly because worship is never a waste of time, but also because you deserve this time to feel the joy of the Christmas season. You need this time to remember what everything else going on around you is really all about. And your soul thirst for this chance to feast on the goodness that is God’s love. Nothing puts a joyful season in better perspective than celebrating Christ’s birth. Bring your families. Bring your house guests. And bring your joy. There’s more than enough room for everyone in this inn.

Journey Through Advent – Day 20

196412_10150146026462890_91858_nThis morning my church joined churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques across the country and tolled its bell once for each life lost last Friday in Newtown. Each ring of the bell signaled a life with so much potential now cut too short. As the bell stopped ringing I thought about those lives lost in Newtown, and about the bells. And, as much as I believe that we as a country needed to stop and mourn and ring out our pain and sorrow, I also believe that it is not nearly enough.
Now is the time that people of faith everywhere need to start the hard work. We need to do something to transform our culture of violence into one of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, this Advent, as we prepare for the Prince of Peace, that work takes on special importance.
There’s a church in Syracuse, New York that is doing the work of peacemaking. All Saints’ Church, a Roman Catholic parish, is asking parents to bring in Christmas gifts that promote violence, such as video games and guns. If they come with a receipt, the church will return them and donate all the money to Newtown. Not only will a community in mourning benefit, but stores and manufacturers will receive the message that we are no longer going to buy into violence. I think it’s a brilliant idea.
And I think there are lots of other brilliant responses to violence out there as well. And so here’s my challenge to Christians this Advent: what one thing can you do between now and Christmas to transform our culture of violence? What one way can you witness to the Prince of Peace whose birth we will celebrate in four days? Will it be refusing to buy a violent toy? Will it be volunteering with a worthy cause? Will it be speaking up when we as a country start to debate what to do next?
The peace of Christ is already inside us. And it can be all around us. In this Advent season, we have a special imperative to share it by our words and our actions. In these final days before Christmas, preach a Gospel of peace with your lives, and pray that we will never have to toll a bell for lost children and their teachers again.

Journey Through Advent – Day 19

IMG_0211Today I’m working mostly at home. I’m writing the liturgies for Christmas eve, finalizing details for the service, and doing other things that don’t require me to be either at the church, or on the road. This means I’m sitting by the Christmas tree, listening to carols, and getting to enjoy the season.

As an added bonus, my wife is baking cookies behind me in the kitchen. So far she’s made sugar cookies and chocolate crinkles. Gingerbread, peppermint meringues, and peanut butter blossoms are on deck for later. Which means that as I write, the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies is all around me.

This time of year, we have reminders of Christmas joy and cheer all around us. The lights, the trees, the cards, and, yes, the cookies, are all little reminders of joy. And just as the smell of cookies are a reminder of what is to come, the joy of the Christmas season is a reminder of the world that God wants us to be.

But the reality is that right now, this world is not the world that God wants for us. The last week has reminded us of that in the most horrific of ways. God wants a world where all of God’s children are loved and respected and live in peace. We’re not there. No where close.

But every so often we get a foretaste of what it could look like. And it is good. Last week, in the aftermath of the greatest trauma, the clergy of Newtown came together to pray for their community. Priests, ministers, a rabbi, and an imam, all offered their prayers. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that this is what God wants for us. In the midst of unshakeable grief, we are coming from our respective traditions, and offering comfort in the best ways we know how.

By contrast, some religious leaders are using this tragedy as a way to push their own agendas. Instead of comforting the afflicted, they are further afflicting them. They blame the shooting on everyone from gay couples to those who advocate religious freedom to divorced couples. And their words, far from glorifying God, lead us away from the world that God wants for us.

This Advent season, test the voices that you hear that claim to be speaking for God. Are they voices of comfort? Of hope? Are they pointing you to God’s love, and giving you a small taste of the world that God wants for us? Or are they sowing division, and pain, and hatred?

In our hearts, we know the voices to follow. They’re the ones that, even when they are at the center of tragedy, still find a way to speak with compassion and peace. We heard them in Newtown. They are the religious equivalents of all the things that remind us God’s love in this holiday season. They are a sign of a better world to come. And they deserve our attention.

Journey Through Advent – Day 17

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

Monks brawling in Bethlehem. Copyright, The Times of London

When we tell and retell the most important stories of our life, we often find that every time we tell it, there are a few details that we can’t leave out of the story. Whether it’s the name of the hotel where you stayed on a honeymoon, or the hospital where your children were born, or what the course looked like on the day you got that hole in one. There is some detail about every important story of your life that may seem insignificant, but that you can’t leave out.

The story of the nativity, the birth of Christ, is no different. There’s one detail we never leave out: When Mary and Joseph got to the inn, they were told there was no room for them there.

 Have you ever wondered whether that was really true? Have you ever wondered if maybe there was room at the inn? Maybe the innkeeper had a couple rooms left, but he saw this unmarried couple with this woman who was obviously pregnant, and decided maybe he didn’t want to rent them a room? Or maybe, even if there weren’t any rooms left, they could have found some place for a woman who was nine months pregnant and about to give birth?

But they didn’t. And so Jesus wasn’t born in the inn.

Sometimes God knocks at our doors and we are asked if there is room in the inn. And sometimes we look out and we don’t really like what we see, or we don’t like what it would mean to let Christ in, and we close the door and say “there’s no place for you here”.

The question is, when you tell the story of your faith, do you want to be the inn that closed its doors? Or do you want to be something else?

Scripture tells us that out in the fields, the shepherds heard the baby had been born. And they got up and they came to the manger and saw the new thing that God had just done in the world.

That’s who I want to be on Christmas Eve, and everyday. I want to be the one who doesn’t close the doors to my heart when God is about to do something new, but the one who hears about it, and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of that story. Like that piece of ground in Bethlehem, I want to be the everyday thing, that becomes holy, not because of who I am, but because of who Christ is. I want to be a part of the story.

I can be. And so can you. And so can we all.

Journey Through Advent – Day 16

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

The front doors of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Kansas.

We call Jesus the “Prince of Peace”. It’s there in our Christmas carols. It’s there in our church services. It’s even right there on our Christmas cards. We know who Christ is, and this time of year we repeat that phrase again and again. This year especially. After Newtown, we need the Prince of Peace more than ever. We pray, we sing, we call out to Christ asking for that peace right now.

But calling out means nothing if we are not ourselves peaceful people. Because if we call ourselves Christians, if we want to claim that Christ is the Prince of Peace, then we cannot remain silent in a culture of violence.
I know a lot of responsible gun owners. I live in a community with many hunters who practice gun safety. I have friends who have handguns and go to shooting ranges. And, while I personally don’t want any guns, I’m not judging them here.
But no one needs an assault rifle. No civilian needs something that was created for the sole purpose of killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. These guns were constructed for one reason and one reason only: to destroy human life.
Spare me the arguments about what will happen if only criminals, and not law abiding citizens, have assault rifles. Spare me your stories of what a good shot you are, and how you could have stopped this. Spare me your explanations about why Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, yet he wouldn’t tell you to put away your AR-15. Spare me your worship of a piece of steel.
Spare me John Wayne. I want Jesus Christ.
In Advent you cannot prepare your hearts for Christmas, you cannot claim to long for the Prince of Peace, and then simultaneously continue to worship something designed to rack up the highest possible death toll. You cannot wait for the birth of a child full of promise, while simultaneously not thinking about those twenty children who were full of promise in Newtown. And you can’t sing the line “sleep in heavenly peace” if you are not willing to do everything you can to make sure that no parent ever again has to endure sleepless nights, wracked with grief, the week before Christmas.
Oh Prince of Peace, we need you. And we need your courage now. Help those of us who claim your name to also claim your demand for peace. Amen.

Journey Through Advent – Day 14

8855_10151138633161787_1774694977_nI want to know why.

I want to know why a 20 year old would kill his own mother and then open fire on innocent children and the adults who were dedicated to them. I want to know why he had access to a stockpile of weapons that no civilian needs. I want to know why whatever happened in his mind happened.
But there are bigger “whys”. We want to know why a God who is always loving lets horrible things happen. It’s the classic question of theology. If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God stop tragedies? I’ve never believed that God wills or wants bad things to happen, and I come from the school of thought that believes that we humans make our own choices, and they are sometimes very bad ones, and in those moments no one hurts more than God. But on a morning after loss, that “why” sits with us, and no explanation seems anywhere near good enough.
And yet, here we are in Advent, preparing for the birth of the child who would someday be called the Prince of Peace. And this world needs peace more than anything. But how can we get ready for that when our hearts our so sad, and our heads are filled with questions of “why”? We might even feel a little angry at God today.
I think God can take it.
One of the last things Christ said before he died, in his hour of greatest suffering, was “My God, my God, why?” If Christ himself demanded to know why, what makes us think that we are any different?
It this Advent season it is possible to both prepare your hearts for God’s incarnate love and to ask “why”. In fact, maybe it’s even imperative. Advent is about building a relationship with God, and you can’t have a good and real relationship with anyone if it is not first an honest one. Our questions, our pain, our anger, all have a place in the life of faith. Belief does not preclude bewilderment.
As we wake up on this Advent morning with heavy hearts, those “why” questions matter. And as we ask them, whether we realize it or not, we are doing Advent preparation. Because with every question asked, we are opening our hearts up to God, and asking for a deeper relationship. We may not get the answers we need, but we may just find a love that we need even more.
Especially on the days when there are no answers.

Journey Through Advent: Day 13

Copyright, ABC News

Copyright, ABC News

My wife and I were stocking up on Christmas groceries this morning, and getting ready to bake cookies. I was working over my Sunday sermon on joy in my head. This morning felt light and festive and free. And then, right there in the grocery store parking lot, I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my mom about the latest school shooting. And in a split second joy turned to despair.

How much more so for families in Connecticut today? We talk a lot about waiting in Advent. We wait for something wonderful. Someone who will bring peace and hope and joy and love. But all I can think about right now are the families waiting at a firehouse in Connecticut for news that will change their world forever.
I think sometimes people think that pastors are supposed to know what to say in times like this. And, rest assured, soon enough religious people will start telling us why this happened, and start placing blame the same way they do after terrorist acts and hurricanes.
But right now all I can say is that I don’t know why this happened,  but I know it’s not what God wanted or willed for us. And that’s the one thing that tells me why Advent is so important. Because things like this just remind me that God isn’t through with us yet. God can’t be if we are still doing this to each other. Every year I pray that the values Christ taught, like peace and compassion and love for our neighbors, will come into our heart a little more at Christmas. I hope for that especially this year.
Until then my only prayer is the one lifted up in the classic Advent hymn: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.
We need you.

Journey Through Advent: Day 12

IMG_0242This year my wife and I are trying to be conscious of where we are spending our Christmas money. We have a set budget, and we are deliberately trying to spend as much of it as possible either locally, or with small artisans. It’s our personal challenge to ourselves to try to support small businesses.

We bought candles at one of my parishioner’s shops. We decorated with a Vermont-made wreath from our local Habitat for Humanity affiliate. And we found a shop on Etsy that sent us a handmade ornament for our tree, complete with our names and wedding date, to celebrate our first married Christmas. As we head into the homestretch, we are thinking of choices we could make next year to support other small businesses.

You might wonder what this has to do with faith, or with Advent.

For us, where we spend our money is more than an economic choice. It’s a theological one. I can’t say that Billy Graham and I agree on everything, but I do think he was right when he said, “Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” The way we think about the money we have, and where we spend it, says a great deal about us.

We often get nervous when theology and money intersect, and often for good reason. But, what if we used our faith to inform our decisions about what we would use our money to support? If we say that we follow a faith that teaches us to love our neighbors, why do we drive past our neighbors’ stores because we can find something slightly cheaper at the Wal-Mart? If we say we follow a faith that teaches us justice, why do we buy things made in sweatshops overseas?

Most of us do more discretionary spending around Christmas time than we do any other time of the year. So this time of year is when our economic decisions could have the greatest impact on others. And conveniently, it’s Advent, which means it is the time of year when we are called to prayerfully reflect on the coming of Christ and what he would teach us. And, if we claim to celebrate his birth, how can we ignore the teachings of the man that child grew up to be?

The Gospel isn’t divorced from any part of our lives, including the part that has to do with our wallet. And there’s no better time to start thinking about how to live into that Gospel in our economic lives than Advent.