Questioning Advent: Day 20 – Uprooted Trees and the Ground of Being

IMG_1965Every day or so I stop by the Christmas tree we have up in the sanctuary and check the water levels in the tree stand. And almost every time I end up filling a pitcher with water and filling the empty stand. Others haven been doing this too. The other day a parishioner remarked, “That tree sure does drink a lot.”

This is a particularly thirsty tree. I have no idea how many gallons of water that tree has soaked up right before since we cut it down right before the first Sunday of Advent.

But, if you think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Even though that tree has been cut down, removed from the snowy field it stood in for years, and brought to the relatively warm church sanctuary where it now resides, it still instinctively knows how to sustain itself. Even though it is rootless, it still draws knows how to live.

Sometimes it can feel like we are rootless too. We can get so far away from what is important, and what sustains us, that we might feel like we’ve just been uprooted and dragged off to another place. We might feel as disconnected from what sustains us as an indoor Christmas tree.

Sure, occasionally we might get a taste of the living waters again. We might get just enough to help us to stay alive. And in that moment we will know to drink. But, in the end, if we stay unrooted, will we ever really thrive?

Come January 6th our church Christmas tree is going to go to some mulch pile or wood chipper. As beautiful as it is, the tree wouldn’t last much longer than that, even if we kept pouring in pitchers full of water. And that makes sense. Eventually what isn’t rooted and grounded in what can give it new life just won’t last.

You and I, we aren’t Christmas trees. We know that. But sometimes it might feel as though we have grown as spiritually dry as a cut pine tree in January. We might long for the places where we used to be planted. We may wish we could just go back to that place we remember and grow again.

The good news, of course, is that we can. Unlike that tree that’s never going back in the ground, the “ground of being”, as Paul Tillich used to call it, is ready to welcome us back. God is ready for us to be replanted and to put down our roots once again. And God is waiting for us to drink up the living water that God wants to give to us.

In the Christmas season, we often find ourselves spiritually connected in ways that we aren’t all year. By a few months later that feeling is often gone. But it doesn’t have to be. This year, stay connected. That feeling you get on Christmas Eve, surrounded by glowing candles in a darkened church, it doesn’t have to come just once a year. Plant yourself in rich soil, and you can be nourished in every season.

Question: What are the ways that you feel rooted in God during the Christmas season, and how can you stay rooted that way all year?

Prayer: God of all creation, even when we are far away from you, we still thirst for your living water. This year, help us to find our roots in you, and in others. Connect us in community. Strengthen us as your body. And help us to find joy and new life all the year long. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 16 – Scrooge, Charlie Brown, Buddy the Elf, the Grinch, and the Rest of Us

UnknownI firmly believe that Christmas is the best time of the year for movies and TV specials. Everything from It’s a Wonderful Life to A Charlie Brown Christmas to Elf to the Grinch to A Christmas Story and beyond. Most of the year I won’t watch a whole lot of TV and movies, but each December there’s a list of shows I want to see again.

This year we’ve watched A Christmas Carol (the Muppet’s version) several times. And once again I watched the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, and how he was transformed from a grumpy, hardhearted, miser to a generous and loving man. And as I was watching, I started to think about a lot of those other Christmas shows I like. The main character often goes through some sort of transformation.

George Bailey finds hope again. The Grinch’s heart grows. Charlie Brown learns what Christmas is all about. The list goes on…

And, when you think about it, as much as these are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives. We who follow Christ are supposed to use Advent to get ready to transform the world. But that’s often a tall order. Because it’s hard to create peace in the world. We can do our best, we can work for good, we can pray for peace, but in the end, we find out an important truth: often you can’t find peace in the world, until you find peace in yourself.

In the stories many of us love, that happens. Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and his heart is transformed, and only then does he give generously. Charlie Brown finds meaning with his sad little Christmas tree despite the fact the whole world has gone commercial, and no one understands what Christmas is really about anymore. Buddy the Elf finds that it is his difference that makes him special. And if you’ve ever seen National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, in the end we find Clark Griswold, who just wanted a perfect Christmas, finds peace in love of his family despite the fact that just about everything has gone wrong.

One word we give to finding peace within ourselves is “serenity”. A sense that no matter what is going on around us, we will ultimately be okay. A sense that God is will us. And a sense that no matter what the rest of the world is doing, we are able to still find peace and joy and hope deep inside of us.

It’s been said that serenity is an inside job. No one can give it to you. And, really, no one can take it from you, either. It’s a peace that, I believe, comes from knowing what matters most in the world, and opening ourselves up to the peace and the grace that God wants us to have. And it’s only when we find that serenity that we find we can truly have joy.

And if we’re really serious about Advent, if we’re really serious about preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ, then serenity is the natural byproduct of this time of year. Because if you are truly using this season to focus on what is coming, there is no way that you won’t be changed by it. Maybe you won’t have a big, miraculous, carol-filled Christmas morning, but inside your heart, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the change happening and the joy filling you.

Question: What have your favorite Christmas movies or specials taught you about how to find joy?

Prayer: God, you can use anything you want to teach us about you. Speak to us this Christmas through everything around us. Whether we are looking at lights, singing songs, or watching a movie, show us the message of joy that you have for us. And then God, help us to cultivate that joy in ourselves, so that we may then spread it to others. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day Nine – Plowing the Road

photoIt snowed last night and this morning in Vermont. By the time I headed out of the house this morning to run errands the road was an icy, slushy mess. The normally speedy cars on the state road were slowed to well under the speed limit. The snow plows and salt trucks hadn’t been through yet either, and as I pulled in and out of the post office, the village market, the hardware store, and the coffee shop, I took my time and hit the brake more than usual. I’m not what anyone would call an overly cautious driver, but I’m a volunteer first responder, and I’ve seen what these same roads can do to cars full of people in the winter.

In this week’s Gospel reading John the Baptist tells us to, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight the paths!” I’ve often read that wondering why God needs us to do that. I mean, God could probably straighten out God’s own paths, and with a lot more accuracy than we can do it. Why does God have this guy out in the wilderness calling to us to be God’s divine road crew? Jesus came, and is coming, whether we were, and are, ready or not.

But John’s call to us is different than that. Indeed, Christ will transform the world, regardless of what we do, but John is offering us something incredible: a chance to participate in that transformation. In Advent we are called to prepare a special path for Christ to come into our hearts. While the Reformed part of me believes that God’s grace is irresistible, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have some say in what happens next when that grace comes in the form of Christ and wants to transform our lives.

On my six mile drive back from town, I was stuck behind a state snow plow. I didn’t particularly mind. The truck pushed the ice and snow off to the side of the road, making it safe to pass once again. “Prepare ye the way of the CRV,” I said to myself. (It was a lot funnier in the moment.)

In Advent we prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives. We make decisions about how we will respond with gratitude for the grace that surrounds us. We clear the paths to our hearts that are impassable, put down a foundation that lets grace take hold, and get them ready for a new season. We choose whether or not we are going to get ready for what comes next. We choose in Advent whether we will participate in Christmas. And sometimes that choice starts with something as simple as clearing a path for something incredible.

Question: Are there any pathways inside of you that are too blocked to allow grace to flow through? What would it look like to make straight those places in preparation for Christmas?

Prayer: Holy God, we know something big is coming, and we know you are calling us to get ready. Show us the paths you will take, and help us to prepare them for you, so that we may participate in what is coming next. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day Seven – Breaking In

IMG_1926Several weeks ago I went to bed after a long day. It didn’t take me long to fall into a deep, sound sleep. But not long after that, I was awakened by a voice coming from someone standing next to the bed.

“Get up,” my wife said. “Someone is breaking into the house.”

Half-awake I turned on a flashlight, debated grabbing my heaviest putter, bounded down the stairs and, because I would be the first person to die in a horror movie, opened the front door and called out, “Is anyone out there?”

No one was out there. As we sat on the couch we heard the same noise my wife had heard a few minutes before. It was so windy that night that the storm door was blowing open and the doorknob was doing something that made it sound like someone was trying to force it open. I would have thought someone was breaking in too.

In this past Sunday’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us, “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24)

I was reminded of that passage this week while watching yet another yearly round of anger about the “war on Christmas”. Here’s my short take: Christmas is not under attack. Not from outside the church, anyway. People who say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are not killing the baby Jesus. Really. (For more on this, see this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/on-keeping-christ-in-chri_b_1152761.html)

But, that’s not to say that we who are Christians shouldn’t be a bit concerned. I’m not talking about outside attacks here. They are as imaginary as the person I was sure was breaking into my house the other week. I’m talking about the way that in the Christmas season we Christians sometimes become so short-sightedly focused on perceived threats outside of our doors that we don’t see that Christ has already broken in to the world around us.

When Jesus said that the owner of the house wouldn’t know when the hour was coming, he could have been talking about us and our misguided anger over those who fail to “keep Christ in Christmas”. What if, instead of getting mad at every cashier who fails to wish us “Merry Christmas”, we looked around and saw the places that Christ is calling us to make Christmas merry for others? What is instead of growing angry over “holiday trees” we instead planted the seeds of peace that this world needs? What if instead of waging wars about nativity scenes on public lands we instead opened our churches in new and radical ways? What if we stopped charging after invisible intruders at the door and focused on looking instead for Christ’s coming?

This Christmas season there are signs of Christ’s coming all around us. We just have to pull ourselves away from the distractions long enough to look. And when we do, we just might find that life is a lot less scary, and a lot more joyful. A lot more like Christmas ought to be.

Question: This Christmas how are you living out the Gospel in ways that attract others, rather than attacking them?

Prayer: Holy God, help us to always be ready to greet you when you come to our door, and teach us to welcome others, whether they will ever believe like us or not, and to invite them inside our hearts. Amen.

The Second Part of the Christmas Story: A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2012

603196_10151146235676787_1936348159_nEvery year, on Christmas eve, we tell the same story. We read a passage from the Bible, usually the one I just read from Luke, and we remember what happened one night over 2,000 years ago. You can probably tell it with me:

A census was being taken. And there was an unmarried couple named Joseph and Mary who were about to give birth. They had to go and be counted, and so they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they got there, there was no room in the inn. And so Mary had the baby out in a manger. Not long after, the angels went to the shepherds and announced the birth, and they came and saw the baby there. And the baby was named Jesus.

We know this story. But every year we read it anyway. And, not to take away the suspense, but if you come back here a year from tonight, we’ll be reading it again.

Part of the reason is that it’s the only one we have. A lot of people have asked me during the course of ministry, why does the Bible end when it does? We have the New Testament with all these books written back in the first and second centuries, but then we have nothing. It’s almost as if the story ends. We don’t get an update each Christmas on what’s going on. We don’t get a Christmas letter filled with news from Jesus. We don’t get a new version of the Bible delivered every December. And so every year we read this story again.

You might be wondering, what’s the point? The story never changes. And if you’re talking about the words found here in the Gospel that we read every year, you’re right. But if you’re talking about the real story, the bigger story, the story about Christ’s birth and what came next, then that’s different. Because the Christmas story does change from year to year, and I’ll tell you why: The Christmas story changes, because we, you and I, change.

You know that question about why the printed story ends in this book? I think it’s because of this. I think it’s because this book tells the story of Christ’s first followers, back when there were only a few. But not long after this, a lot of other people got to know about Christ, and got to know the story of the first Christmas. And if we told the stories of all the people who have come to understand what the baby born that night was all about, if we tried to write them all down, one book would not contain them.

The national denomination this church is a part of, the United Church of Christ, has a motto that we use. We say, “God is still speaking…” And by that we mean that God did not stop being active in our world and in our lives 2,000 years ago. We mean that God still is working in this world. God still is transforming it, and transforming us. God isn’t just in the past. God is here now.

And we, the people of a still speaking God, are still listening. And we are still hearing the stories, not just ones written so long ago, but also ones all around us. And even if this story we hear on Christmas eve every year isn’t changing, we are. And the most miraculous part of it is this: If we are really changing, if we are really being transformed by God’s love for us, then we are becoming people who not only listen to the Christmas story but who also become a part of it ourselves.

If you are truly want to get to know that baby who was born 2,000 years ago, if you truly want to follow the person he grew up to become, then you cannot help being changed. And you cannot help becoming a part of his story. And that means you cannot avoid becoming part of the greater Christmas story, a story of hope, and peace, and joy, and love.

And that’s a good thing. Because the world needs all of those things in abundance right now. The past few weeks, we’ve seen that so clearly. One of the reasons that I believe the Christmas story still matters for us is that I believe God cannot be done with us if we are still inflicting pain on each other. God cannot be done with this world. And that means that God’s people cannot be done working to transform it either.

And that means that you and I, the people who come to celebrate the birth of a child so long ago, have some work to do. And we have a story waiting for us to become a part of it. The child born tonight grew up to be a man who told us to live lives of peace. Who told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Who told us to turn away from things that ultimately mean little, and instead turn to what really matters; to turn our hearts towards God and towards one another.

This time of the year, we sing a lot of carols about that child. We celebrate in ways we don’t the rest of the year. And we talk about things like peace, and joy, and hope. But if we really mean it, if we really want to be a part of this Christmas story, then we can’t pack those things away next week along with the wrapping paper and the ornaments. We have to be a part of this story every day, and not just every December.

If we are truly doing that, then we will have incredible stories to share ourselves. Stories of kindness and compassion where they were totally unexpected. Stories of generosity in times of scarcity. Stories of peace in a time of violence. Stories of hope in our darkest hours.

What if you were to tell the second part of the Christmas story tonight? What if you were to read this passage we read tonight, and then you were to say, and here’s my second part. Here’s my story about what happened next. Here’s my story about how the love and life of this child born tonight has changed me. Here’s what happened when this Gospel story and my life’s story intersected, and everything changed. The story is the starting point. But you are what happens next.

Christmas is not just about the story of Christ being born in a manger 2,000 years ago. Christmas is about the story of Christ’s love being born in our hearts everyday. And it’s the story of how you respond. Not just tonight, and not just tomorrow, but everyday.

Next December 24th, I invite you to all join us back here once again. Here’s a spoiler: We’ll be reading the same story. But it’s just the start of the story, and between this year and next year, your Christmas story will have changed. And the more that you open your hearts up to Christ’s love this year, the more you let it be born inside of you, the better that story, your story, will be next year. May Christ’s light shine in your hearts brightly this Christmas eve, and may it shine ever brighter in your lives, and in our world, all through the year.  Amen.

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 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 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.
Amen.