Christmas Movies and Advent Stories: December 4, 2016

I’ve said before that I 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. There are certain shows and movies that I just have to see each year for it to really feel like Christmas.

movie-mcc-promo03-crachitsThis week I watched A Christmas Carol. The Muppet’s version. 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. And I realized that 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…

But then, we have this other seasonal character. John the Baptist. He’s not exactly camera-ready, and he wouldn’t animate well into a cuddly character. John lived out in the wilderness dressed in camelhair and eating locusts and honey. This would be a horrible Christmas special. But this time of year, right before Christmas, we read about how he preached to everyone who would listen and he told them “prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight”.

In other words, he told the people “get ready”. Get ready because someone else is coming, and he is about to change everything. Get ready because your world is about to change.

We read this story every year in Advent, and John may as well have been talking to us. Because Advent is all about getting ready. It’s about transformation. It’s about preparing our heart for someone who is coming, and opening it up to new ways of being.

In Advent we prepare ourselves by focusing on four themes as symbolized by the Advent wreath: hope, peace, joy, and love. Last week we lit the candle of hope. And today we light the candle of peace.

Christians follow the one who was called the Prince of Peace, and Advent is all about waiting for his birth, and preparing ourselves for what he is about to ask us to do. Things like working for peace. Ending violence and suffering. And standing up against hatred and injustice.

This should be the most peaceful time of the year. But have you ever noticed that sometimes people people preparing for Christmas seem anything but peaceful? Our stress levels go up. We argue. We get frustrated in the stores when we can’t find what we need. Some people even go on TV and yell about the color of Starbucks holiday cups and how no one cares about Christmas anymore.

When you think about it, if you are yelling angrily about Christmas, you are probably missing the point. But unfortunately that happens far too often.

black-santa

Santa Claus (aka, Larry Jefferson). Copyright, CBS News.

I was reading this week about how the Mall of America in Minnesota hired its first African-American Santa Claus. This man is a convincing Santa. And, like every other Santa, he does a great job listening to kids share their wishes for the season. My guess is that none of the kids he holds in his lap care all that much about what color Santa is, so long as they get to tell them what they want.

But the adults…they are another story. Adults angrily called the mall and took to social media to denounce the fact this Santa was black. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to take down the comments section online because of the horrifically racist and nasty comments they were getting.

It seems a lot of people are on the naughty list this year.

But more importantly, can you imagine what Jesus would say about this? This is his grand birthday celebration, after all, and I’m sure more than a few of those comments came from church-going people who would call themselves good Christians.

The reality is that Christians are supposed to do a better job. We aren’t supposed to be spreading anger and hate. We’re supposed to transform the world.

But that’s a tall order. 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 create peace in the world, until you create peace in yourself.

Oddly, those Christmas movies helped me to realize that because when you think about it, as much as those are Christmas stories, they could also be Advent stories. Because they’re all about preparing our heart and transforming our lives.

Scrooge realizes the error of his ways, and only then is his heart transformed. 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. 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 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 peace filling you.

This time of year, no matter what is happening around us, we are called to prepare our hearts anyway. We are called to open them up to grace and to love and to get ready to welcome Christ into the world. We are called to be messengers of peace, not only in our words, but in our actions.

georgebailey1This week as we go back out into the world, we can go with our hearts holding that promise. We can go as witnesses to the peace that Christ offers us. And we can go as Christ’s transformed people, and Christ’s Advent people.

These are the stories we love to hear, and they are the stories the world needs to hear. The Grinch, Scrooge, Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all the rest…they were once Advent people too…looking for peace…waiting for a transforming love. And they found it. And so are you, and your story is just about to get good. Amen?

When It Feels Like Jesus is Asleep at the Wheel: A Sermon on Charleston for June 21, 2015

Like many of you, I’ve spent the past few days thinking about Charleston. Wednesday night people were gathered at a church. They were studying the Bible, and they were praying. And when a young man came in, they expanded their circle and let him in to their fellowship.

There are no words that adequately describe the tragedy of what happened next. And it will be a long process of discernment as we as a society decide how we respond to the evil we saw in Charleston. And for those of us who are people of faith, there is another question that I’m hearing, too: Why did God let this happen?

It’s a fair question. The nine victims were in God’s house, studying God’s Word, and lifting prayers up to God. They were welcoming the stranger, the way that Jesus asked of us. And they were, by all accounts, good and kind people who lived out their faith. No one deserves what happened, but of all people, why them?

By chance, the lectionary this week brings us a story of another time when the people of God were in the midst of danger. The passage and sermon title had been chosen before Wednesday evening, and they, unfortunately, became more relevant this week.

The Gospel we read today tells the story of how the disciples are crossing the sea in a boat. And we are told that Jesus is with them, but that he is asleep. A storm rolls in and the rain and wind start to beat against the boat, until it starts to take in water. The disciples think the boat was about to sink, and they are about to die. And they start yelling at the sleeping Jesus, waking him up and shouting, “Don’t you care that we are dying!”

Copyright, NBC News

Copyright, NBC News

“Don’t you care that we are dying?” Wednesday night I thought about those words, not for myself but for those nine souls in Charleston. “Jesus, don’t you care that they are dying? Don’t you care about your own people, gathered there in your own church?”

I think through the centuries, in many more places than that boat on a Galilean sea and a church basement in Charleston, good people of faith have asked that question. “Jesus, don’t you care? Why do you let bad things happen to good people? Why aren’t you stopping it?”

Like I said it’s a fair question. And those disciples in the boat, they at least got a response. When they woke Jesus up and yelled their question to him, he took action. He spoke to the storm and the sea and said “peace, be still”. And when he did, the rain and the wind died, and they were safe.

The disciples, they got a happy ending. But today I don’t tell you this story to say “everything is going to be okay”. Because the end of the story has not yet been written for us.

But I do tell it, because I believe that it reminds us of something very important: Jesus does not will for God’s people to suffer. What happened on Wednesday night in Charleston was not God’s will. It’s not what was supposed to happen.

Instead, it was what one angry, racist, violent young man chose to do. It was the horrible way that he chose to exercise his free will. It was his turn away from the message that Jesus gave us all, one of peace and love for our neighbor. And it was choosing an act of evil, even after being shown the love of strangers.

And it is horrifying. But, it is not unprecedented.

When I went to college in Atlanta, I would drive by Dr. King’s old church in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. And I’d drive by The Temple, a Jewish synagogue that had been bombed in the Civil Rights movement. And I’d drive by other houses of worship that had been targeted decades before and think about the kind of hatred that would drive someone to carry out an act of violence against a peaceful place of worship. I’d think about how strange it must have been to have lived in that era.

But, as we know now, that era isn’t over. And I should have known better, even at age 18. Because the truth is, I knew racism was alive and well. I grew up in the South and I remember my friends from well-educated “good families” repeating the racist epithets of their parents while we played outside. I remember classmates who shaved their heads and started to wear neo-Nazi insignia. And I remember Confederate flags on the front of cars, or in front of fraternity houses on my college campus, hung by people who called it “heritage”.

Much like the disciples sailed a sea that was sometimes violently restless, I grew up in the South sailing a sea that was far too often disturbed by the undercurrents of hate. But unlike the disciples, who sailed waters that were unsettled by the weather, when we encounter racism it does not come from a natural place. We are sailing on a human-made sea of hate. It does not have to be there.

And like the disciples, we can call out to Jesus to ask him to calm the storm. But unlike the disciples, this storm is one of human making. And it will not be calmed by our silence. That didn’t even happen for the disciples; why should it happen for us?

Instead, it is our job to not just call out to Jesus, but to live out the values he taught us. It is our job to calm the stormy sea by choosing to speak up against hatred and bigotry. It is our job to love our neighbors, no matter who or where they are. And it is our job to reject silence when words are needed. We need to name racism for what it is: not a breach of social etiquette. Not a political concern. Not a relic of a bygone era. But instead, something that we must resist. Something that is a sin.

It may be tempting, here in New England, to think this is not our work. On Thursday, as I rang our church bells in remembrance, I thought about how different our context is here in Exeter than it is in Charleston. I wondered really what we could do from so far away.

But as I was sitting there, I was convicted by a story that the Rev. Bob Thompson told this past year when he came to a We the People lecture to talk about racism. Despite growing up in West Virginia, Bob said, “Exeter, New Hampshire is the only place I’ve ever been called the “n-word”.” And it didn’t just happen once.

And so, we have work to do. We have work to do because we are human beings and concerned citizens, but we also have work to do because we are Christians. And because just like Jesus calmed the storms by saying “peace”, Jesus taught us what it means to be peacemakers. And he was always clear that the peacemakers are the ones who work for justice for all God’s people.

So how do we start? I think the story tells us a little about that. Because the thing that has always struck me about this passage is the fact that Jesus did not calm the storm from back on the dock. He was not waiting for them there on the opposite shore. Instead, in the wake of a horrible storm, Jesus was right there with them, in the same boat.

And so that’s the hope in this story. Jesus does not ask us to do this alone. But Jesus does ask us to get in the same boat, and go where he is going.

Scripture tells us that other boats were out there on the sea that day. The same is true for us. There are a lot of boats out there. There are boats of anger. Boats of fear. Boats of vengeance. Boats of denial. And I’ll admit that sometimes they look pretty attractive.

But when it comes down to it, this is the only boat I want to be in. Because this is where Jesus is at the helm.

That doesn’t always mean that it will be smooth sailing. Because, be warned, no one said that following Jesus would be easy. Sometimes it costs everything. But like Jesus himself said after he stilled the storm, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

I want to be in that boat. And I want to have faith. I want to have that faith because on Wednesday night, not even bullets could destroy the faith of Emanuel AME church. And not even bullets could stop their hope.

So much so that when the shooter was arraigned on Friday morning, when he was brought into the courtroom where the families of his victims sat, their faith and their hope lived. And even in the face of a man who had done such an evil thing, they were able to say something to him that no one expected: “I forgive you”. Again and again they said it. And they said “May God have mercy on you.” And “we will pray for you”.

If they can say that, if they can stay in the same boat as Jesus even when no one could blame them for jumping ship, I can say the things that I sometimes don’t. I can say “that’s not funny” when I hear a racist, xenophobic, or a bigoted joke. I can tell the truth when I hear someone spread misinformation. I can say speak up when it would be easier for me to say silent. And I can say the things that will help to cause change. Because we never know who is listening, and we never know how much power our words, or our silence, might have. And if the families of those lost can say the things they did to the man who killed their loved ones, this is the least I can say from my place of comfort.

That’s my pledge in the wake of Charleston. You can choose the same, but that is your choice. But if you do, let’s pray for one another. Let’s pray that we will be the peacemakers on a sea that sometimes seeks to destroy us all. Let’s pray that we can stay in the same boat as Jesus, even when the waves get rocky. And let’s pray that one day soon we will find the other shore.

But today, let’s first pray for the souls that were lost. The martyrs of the faith. The ones who gave their lives doing exactly what Christ asked of them: transforming their minds, lifting their voices in praise, and welcoming their neighbor with open hearts. And let us do so by speaking their names and keeping our silence for a moment:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
Cynthia Hurd
Ethel Lance
Susie Jackson
Depayne Middleton
Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Daniel Simmons
Myra Thompson

(Silence.)

Prayer: O God, whose son stilled stormy seas, we lift up these names and these lives to you. And we lift up our hearts to you as well. God, transform them, and give us the strength and the will to silence the storms of hatred, and to speak words of peace, justice, and reconciliation. Amen.

Advent Stories: Sermon for December 7, 2014

Mark 1:1-8
1:1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;

1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”

1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

1:5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

1:6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.

1:7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.

1:8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Advent2

I don’t watch a lot of movies. I really have never been good at sitting still long enough. But there is one exception: Christmas movies. Right now there is a stack of them next to our TV: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation…the list goes on. And each December I probably spend more time than the rest of the year combined watching movies.

I’ve found that the same is true for others too. There’s something so special about the Christmas stories we grew up with, and even the ones we’ve come to know as adults, that they become a part of the way we celebrate the holidays.

But as much as I love them, there’s a catch…and that’s that I don’t think all of our favorite Christmas stories are really Christmas stories at all.

I’ll come back to that. But first, we have this story from Scripture about another character: John the Baptist. It’s traditional that on the second Sunday of Advent churches read about John, and about how he lived out in the wilderness where he ate locusts and wild honey, and wore camel’s hair, and shouted at people to “prepare the way of the Lord”.

So, you know, really Christmasy. He doesn’t sound like he was a lot of fun to be around. Actually, he sounds a little more like the Grinch or Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet, this is in many ways exactly the text we need to read this time of the year.

Because Advent is about preparation. It is about, as John puts it, preparing the way of the Lord and making the Lord’s paths straight. And John doesn’t mean literal paths by that. He doesn’t want us to build sidewalks or pave roads. He wants us to do something much harder.

John is telling us to clear the way for God to come into our hearts and into our lives. “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make the path straight.” In other words, get ready. Make some room for God.

That can be hard to imagine during the midst of the busy run-up to Christmas. We all have things to do this time of year. Presents to buy, cookies to bake, decorations to put up, cards to send. We may be busier than ever. And now John, this guy with his camel hair, wants us to add one more thing to the list. And that’s pretty easy for him to say. His shopping list consists of only two things: locusts and honey.

But, what if he’s right? What if you and I are being asked to prepare the way of the Lord? And what if it’s not just something to do on top of everything else we do to get ready for Christmas? What if it’s the point of this whole season and nothing else really matters?

Part of how we prepare the way of the Lord in this Advent season is by reflecting on the four traditional themes of the season. Last week was “hope”. And today is “peace”. But this story about John the Baptist, this guy who is sort of out there raving in the wilderness, at first glance might not sound like it has much to do with peace at all, so you might be wondering, “why do churches read about him this week”?

I think the answer to that has to do with how we understand what “peace” means. So, how would you define peace? It is the absence of war? In one sense, yes. And I would love for us to learn how to live without war. This world has too many wars, including ones being fought right now. This year, as I’m thinking about what peace means, I’m also thinking about a friend of mine who is deployed to Afghanistan right now. And as he spends this Christmas away from his family, I’m thinking about a world in which he would never have had to go.

I believe that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants that kind of peace for the world. But I don’t believe peace stops there. Because peace means more than not just firing a weapon, or raising a fist. And Jesus himself showed that.

Because the child we wait for this season, the one who would be called the Prince of Peace, is also the guy who grew up to angrily flip over tables in the Temple. He didn’t believe in the kind of false peace that comes only in the absence of armed conflict. And that’s because he wanted more from us than peace without justice.

And so when Jesus walked into the Temple and saw a system of money changing and usury that manipulated the faith of people and exploited the poor, he literally turned the tables on it. And in doing so, he taught us all that real peace cannot come when some are being oppressed. Real peace only comes when every child of God is treated justly.

So, already peace is a tall order: the absence of violence, and the absence of injustice. But, what if there’s even more to it?

There is a song you may have heard: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” There’s also that prayer from St. Francis that we recited at the beginning of our service: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”

What if we got absolutely serious about that? What if we decided that we ourselves were going to be the place where peace starts. And, even harder, what if we committed to creating peace within our own selves?

There’s a word that I’ve come to associate with inner peace: serenity. Reinhold Niebuhr, the well-known UCC minister and theologian, even wrote a prayer about it that you probably know: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity does not mean that everything is perfect. It does not mean that things are even good or comfortable. It simply means that in the midst of everything, we have a sense of peace. And for those of us who are Christians, that means a sense of connection with our God, and with Christ, the Prince of Peace.

In that way, reading about John the Baptist on this Sunday of peace is maybe not so strange after all. Because what John is asking us to do is to get ready for God. John is saying prepare your heart, and mind for Christ’s coming. Unclutter the path that God will take, remove the obstacles you have placed there, and open yourself up to the peace that only Christ can bring.

Prepare the way of the Lord, because that’s how you find peace in yourself. And if you don’t have that peace, how can you ever except to bring it to others?

And that’s important because so much of what John the Baptist was doing out there in the wilderness was witnessing to the one who was to come. John knew he was not Christ. He knew something bigger than him was coming. Just like you and I are not Christ, but we witness to what we believe by the way we live our lives. And in Advent we prepare ourselves for the work of witnessing to God’s hope, and peace, and joy, and love, that we are asked to do all year. We prepare the way of the Lord inside of us, that we may prepare the way of the Lord in a world that so desperately needs all of those things that only Christ can bring.

And so, here’s where I want to go back to those Christmas movies and specials I talked about at the beginning. Remember how I said they weren’t really Christmas stories? I say that not because they are not Christmas-themed, but because most of them are really Advent stories. And that’s because most of them are about someone who learns to prepare the way of the Lord in their heart by making a change.

Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.

So what is your Advent story? How are you going to be transformed this year? How are you going to prepare and make straight the way of the Lord?

You don’t have to be visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. You don’t have to have to go to Whoville. You don’t even have to have Charlie Brown’s sad little Christmas tree. All you have to do is this: open your heart, and make a little space for the Prince of Peace. Prepare the way of the Lord, and the Lord will show you the rest. 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 13 – Breakfast

294090_808396564688_2465085_nMy wife and I have a routine. Every Friday morning, before we both get to work, we try to have a breakfast date together. Each week we rotate between our favorite breakfast spots around our valley. It’s not a big valley. We tend to go to same places again and again. But there’s one place I’ve never been able to take my wife. At least not until today.

In August of 2011, Tropical Storm Irene flooded our community. Heidi and I hadn’t been together long, and I hadn’t had a chance to take her yet to Dot’s, the iconic small town diner in Wilmington. We had been planning to go the week the storm hit, but we never made it. By the time the rain stopped, Dot’s had been ravaged by the river that flows below it. Later that day we walked the streets around Dot’s, stepping over the pavement the waters had literally ripped from the road.

For the last two years and four months Dot’s has sat closed. The whole building had to be salvaged, moved back from the river, and rebuilt. For a while it wasn’t clear whether or not it would ever reopen. It became a symbol of the flood’s devastation, and the town’s tenuous recovery.

The first Christmas after the flood was hard here in the Deerfield Valley. We are a seasonal economy, based in large part on skiing, and it was a bad year for snow. Add to that the number of people who were rebuilding homes, laid off from businesses, or dreading the next storm, and the holidays took on a melancholy tone. Recovery is a process, and hope is often the last thing to get rebuilt.

In Advent we look for the coming joy, but we don’t ignore the realities of life. We acknowledge that this is often a broken, unfair, and incomplete world. We proclaim that we are a people more in need of hope, peace, joy, and love. We tell the truth. Because, if we know the truth about this world, if we don’t acknowledge that it is so in need of change, why would the promise of a new and better life in Christ mean anything to anyone?

Yesterday morning, the doors of Dot’s opened again. The counter was full. The tables were spread with pancakes and Vermont maple syrup. This morning we drank our coffee, ate the bacon and waffles, and said “hello” to our neighbors. The diner looked a little different, but there it was, perched above that same river and filled with new life. Destruction and disaster did not have the final say.

In Advent we proclaim a message of potential. We tell the story of what is to come. We pray for change. We wait for, and participate in, the birth of something new. We refuse to let devastation have the last word. We rebuild, not in ignorance, but with faith in the potential of the one who came and who is coming to us still. And in our rebuilding, we say “we are ready”.

Question: In your life, what has been destroyed, and what have you rebuilt in faith?

Prayer: God, you will not let the waters destroy us, you will not let the fires consume us, you will not let hatred crush us, and you will not let destruction win. In these season of Advent, help us to build. Let us build up the places of love in our hearts, the places of peace in our relationships, the places of hope in our communities, and the places of joy in the world. And let us see the potential for new life in everything. Even pancakes. Amen.

If you’d like to read more about Dot’s, check out this article that came out in the New York Times the day after this devotional was published: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/14/us/in-vermont-a-town-that-would-not-let-its-diner-go.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Questioning Advent: Day 12 – Ecumenical Peace

IMG_0886This Advent my congregation, a typical New England Congregational parish, is holding joint mid-week services with the local Episcopal parish. Last week we worshiped in the Episcopal sanctuary where I preached and their priest celebrated communion. This week my church hosted, their priest preached, and I celebrated communion.

Some clergy friends wanted to know more about how this arrangement worked. “What about the different theologies?” “But you don’t have the same understandings of Communion!” “Were your people really okay using the Book of Common Prayer?” There seemed to be disproportionate amazement that two different Christian traditions could worship together.

I can report that nothing, not even the suspect pairing of a Congregationalist and a prayer book, was capable of keeping us from successfully worshipping Christ together.

In the second week of Advent we focus on peace. We explore what it means to be people of peace on every level: non-violence, inner peace, and more. But this week I’ve been thinking about another kind of peace: the peace that we Christians can extend to one another across denominational lines, and the potential that peace brings for reconciliation.

In the old mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, UCC, and more) there are deeply entrenched denominational identities. Often if you ask a member of one church what they believe, you’ll hear more about what they don’t believe. A member of the UCC might say, “Well, we don’t believe in having bishops to tell us what to do”. Or a Lutheran might tell you they don’t believe in waiting until you’re an adult to be baptized. Or a Methodist will tell you they don’t believe in predestination.

But the landscape of the American church is changing dramatically. In twenty years denominations won’t look anything like they do now. We simply are not going to be able to sustain so many large denominational headquarters and hierarchies. And, for many of us, that is rather terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The reality is that many of the historical Protestant churches are clinging onto identities forged in theological conflicts from the 1500’s and 1600’s. Others are still defined by regional differences from centuries past. And despite the fact that we have much more in common than we realize, we remain separated centuries later.

We don’t have to stay that way, though. I’ve never been one to believe that the church is dying. The church is the body of Christ, and if we are truly people who believe in the resurrection of Christ, that means that the church cannot die. But we are changing. And it could be that the situation American mainline churches find themselves in is just radical enough that it will give us the “gift of desperation” that shakes us out of our comfortable places and into a place of new cooperation.

Last night as we passed the peace of Christ, I wondered what it would take for that peace to find its way into every denominational meeting, and what it would mean for that peace to reshape everything. What would it mean to really believe that the peace of Christ is so great that our theological differences, while real, don’t matter enough to keep us apart? What would it mean to put our first faith not in our prayer books or polity documents or faith statements, but in Christ himself?

In Advent, we who are the church can look for new starts. We can look for ways that Christ’s peace is creeping into our life together. And we can reach out across the aisle in that peace, and find that together we can do far more than we ever can apart. That’s what Advent is all about: preparing us for God being with us, and us being with one another.

Question: What are the small things keeping our churches from extending peace and reconciliation to one another?

Prayer: God, you have reconciled us to you through Christ, help us to reconcile ourselves to one another. Save us from the false idolatries of what matters little, and grant us a peace that can overcome all, until all your body is one. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 10 – Not So Silent Night

20131210-140908.jpgOn Christmas Eve two years ago our sanctuary was packed to capacity. We filled the pews to the max, then added folding chairs in the back. Then, finally, people took up standing positions in the back and down the side aisles. By the time we made it to the end of the service, when we sing “Silent Night” by candlelight, I was pretty sure that between the over fire capacity crowd, the 150 year old wooden building, and the candles we were going to burn down the church.

So last year we broke with tradition and went from one Christmas Eve service to two. We decided the early service would be a “family friendly” one that was earlier in the evening and featured a children’s pageant. The later would be the traditional, relatively quiet candlelight service.

The children’s service was wonderful. The kids sang “Away in a Manger”, they brought the “Baby Jesus” (a recycled doll) up to the creche, and they “lit” their child safe “candles” with the lightbulbs on top. And, yes, they made a lot of noise. They made the sort of happy, joyful noise that children make when they are in a place where they know that they are valued and loved. I couldn’t be happier.

On Christmas Eve we celebrate the fact that God became one of us. And the remarkable thing is that when God became human, God didn’t choose to be someone who was strong, or respected, or powerful. God chose to come as a powerless newborn child. That’s why seeing the joyful, boisterous children at church last Christmas made me especially happy. They are reminders to me of the way God chose to first show us Christ.

But after worship, as I stood by the outside door, one man I’d never seen before made clear to me that he didn’t see it that way. “Those kids were such  distraction!,” he told me. “The service would have been perfect if they hadn’t been here.” Then he disappeared into the snowy night, never to be seen again.

I suppose I could have gotten mad about it. I could have indignantly reminded him that it was the family-friendly service, where kids are allowed to be kids. I could have said that even if they had been loud at the later service, that would have been fine by me. But instead I just said, “Merry Christmas” and wished him well.

But what I really wanted to say to him was this: Yes, those kids were a distraction. They broke up our silent night. They brought chaos to order. They lit their candles at the wrong time! They made sure nothing went as planned.

But, really, isn’t that the exact same thing that the baby who came 2,000 years ago did too? Didn’t Jesus make us shout about a new way? Didn’t Jesus shake up the order of things? Didn’t he bring light to the places where it wasn’t expected? Wasn’t that child a distraction?

And aren’t we better for it?

In Advent we get ready for a holy distraction. We prepare ourselves for something that will change everything. And in order to really receive the joy that Christ brings, we have to be ready to give up all the quiet and orderly places in our life and let them be filled by a child who has something much more joyful in store for us than anything we could imagine.

Question: What places in your life are so well-ordered, and run so perfectly, that you are afraid of letting in the messiness of Christ’s love?

Prayer: Holy God, when you became like one of us, you came as a child. God, help us to welcome the child, whether it’s the one who came to us 2,000 years ago, or the one who comes today. And when we welcome them, help us to allow them to turn our order into holy chaos, and our holy chaos into joy. 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 Eight – Get Ready

saint-john-the-baptist-09We read about John the Baptist every second Sunday of Advent. Here in the middle of the Christmas joy and preparation is this story of this guy who lives down by the river eating locusts and wild honey, and shouting at everyone to repent.

There’s a good reason no one is putting John the Baptist on a Christmas card.

Maybe it’s John’s call to us to “repent” that scares us the most. I hear “repent” and I either think of a religious revival where some preacher is calling everyone sinners, or a dour confessor doling out penance. Neither is particularly joyful anytime of the year, and particularly not at Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth hearing. And that’s especially true if we hear what “repentance” really means. If you go back to the root of the Greek word that’s found in the original text of the New Testament, you find that the word is “metanoia”. Metanoia is roughly translated as “to change your mind”. It’s a call to “think differently”. And, not just a call to change your mind, it’s a call to change your actions as well.

That may sound like an odd Christmas message, but it fits perfectly in Advent. This is the season when we who follow Christ are getting ready for something new. This is the start of something big. And if we are going to get on board, we have to make room for what is coming, and we have to change the things that are keeping us from getting ready.

This repentance isn’t about feeling bad or ashamed or guilty. It’s about being willing to put aside the things that are keeping us from fully participating in what comes next. It’s about believing that our mistakes and our past don’t have to define out future. And it’s about deciding to believe that we can be a part of God’s own work in our world.

And, when you think about it like that, John the Baptist was all proclaiming out chance to share in the joy to come. It may not fit on a Christmas card, but it’s worth remembering just the same in this holy season of getting ready.

Question: How are you repenting this Advent? What changes are you making in order to make room or to get ready?

Prayer: Merciful God, thank you for the chance to change, and thank you for the people you put in our lives who remind us that change is possible. In this season of Advent, help us to make the changes we can make in order to make room for a love that will change the world. Amen.

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.