Questioning Advent: Day 23 – No Room in the Inn

1483073_10151752722391787_559567358_nThere is a Christian tradition about the spot where Jesus was born. There is a church in Bethlehem that was built over the very spot where Jesus was said to have laid in a manger. It is considered so holy, that three different Christian traditions, Catholic and Orthodox, have laid claim to it for centuries, and now they all have monks that live there, and there is sort of an uneasy truce. The monks still, to this day, sometimes even have fist fights over the space.

Now, I don’t think that’s what Jesus wants for the place he was born. I’m not even sure if that’s the exact place he was born or not, or if it even matters. But what I am sure of is that we remember that place where Christ was first born. We remember it enough to want to know exactly where it was, and to keep that place holy.

You know what we don’t remember? We don’t remember the name of the inn.

Was it the Bethlehem Hotel? The Road to Nazareth Convention Center? The Holiday Inn?

We’ll never know. But, I often wonder if the inn ever realized who they turned away. I wonder if a few decades down the line, they realized that when Jesus’ mom had come to the door, they hadn’t given her a room. They’d given her some hay.

Now, if this was just a story about an innkeeper who missed a chance to open the doors to Christ over 2,000 years ago, I wouldn’t be telling it tonight. But this isn’t about what an innkeeper did 2,000 years ago. It’s about what God did, and what God still does. And it’s about what we do next.

Christ still comes into this world. Christmas still happens. It didn’t just happen once, it happens all the time.

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”.

But sometimes, even when we don’t really want to, even when we’re not sure we want to open that door up, we do anyway. And that matters. Because Christmas may be about the story that we read. It may be about Mary and Joseph, and the baby and the manger, and no room at the inn. But that story teaches us about more than just an event that happened centuries ago. It teaches us about opening ourselves up to what God is trying to do in us in this world. And it’s about telling God that, even if we don’t know what it means yet, there is room for God in our lives, and we want to be part of what God is doing.

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. It’s time to decide. How are you going to open your door to Christ this year? And how are you going to join the Christmas story?

Prayer: God, as we prepare for the most holy night, we ask that you will give us courage to open the doors of our hearts to you. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 22 – Perfect Love Casts Out Fear

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when the church lights the candle on the Advent wreath that stands for love. I find each of the four themes we focus upon in Advent to be meaningful, but I confess a strong sentimental preference for this fourth Sunday. I’ll tell you why.

photoTwo years ago today I was in the throes of a love I had never experienced before. (Actually, I still am…but this is about two years ago.) And so on December 22, 2011, I asked the woman who is now my wife to come with me to the Prudential Center in Boston. Together we rode the elevator to the 50th floor observation deck of the Prudential Tower, and we looked out over the city of Boston and beyond.

This was the second time we had been there together. The first hadn’t gone so well. I’m not afraid of much, but on that first visit I had discovered that I was not particularly fond of 50th floor observation decks. We had made it around the glassed-in floor that day, but only because I refused to look down and couldn’t wait to get back on solid ground.

But this night was different. The sun was slowly setting on Boston, and as we walked around the observation deck I pointed out all the places that meant something special to us: the seminary where we met, the Boston Common, the first place we had said “I love you”, and more. And then, standing there fifty stories up, I told her, “You make me feel like I can do all the things that terrify me.”

I didn’t ask Heidi to marry me there. Instead we walked two blocks down the street to Old South Church, her church, where we were attending a weeknight worship service in the chapel. But before we went in, we took a detour to the sanctuary, the place where she and I had spent time sitting and talking early on in our relationship. We we stood up to go, Heidi turned around for a second. When she turned back I was down on one knee. And there, in that sanctuary where we had both learned so much about God’s love and our own love, she said “yes”.

That night Heidi and I were asked to light the Advent wreath during worship. We lit the fourth candle; the love candle.

In Advent we talk about love and sometimes we make it sound like some big theological concept. But, really, love comes pretty naturally. When we love one another, we experience just a small taste of what God’s love for us is like. And in Advent we await a love that is so deep, and so unrelenting, that the same love came down and became one of us, that we would know that love even better.

In the first letter of John there is a line that says, “perfect love casts out fear”. I think that’s true. I also think that love, as I told Heidi, makes us believe we can do all the things that terrify us. And I think that’s what happens when we truly understand at our core that God loves us. The fear is gone, and nothing stops us from doing what terrifies us. And, even better, nothing stops us from spreading that same love to others.

At least that’s what the fourth Sunday of Advent teaches me.

Question: How would you love, in every sense of the word, if you were unafraid?

Prayer: God, thank you for the gift of love you have given us through Christ. God, may your love for us overpower our fear until all that remains is you. And then, filled with your love, may we share that love with others. Amen.

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 19 – Cheese Grits

Copyright, Southern Living

Copyright, Southern Living

I really like cheese grits. I grew up south of the Mason-Dixon and went to college and seminary in Atlanta, where I solidified my passion for cheese grits. Cheddar grits are great. Cheddar grits with a little bit of jalapeño diced up in them are even better.

But now I live in New England, land of oatmeal. Occasionally there will be sightings of cheese grits at restaurants in the bigger cities, offered as a special by some exiled Southern chef, but those meals are few and far between. Once I took an extra order home for breakfast from a restaurant in Northampton. The waitress encouraged me to put maple syrup on them. Sacrilege.

The other day Heidi said that she wanted to make me pulled pork barbecue and cheese grits. She had never made them before, but she’s a good cook. I figured that if any Yankee could pull them off, it was her. Which is why I found myself searching through a Vermont grocery store this week, desperately seeking some sort of package of grits. It didn’t look promising, but finally, under boxes of oatmeal, and Cream of Wheat, and whatever else passes for acceptable substitutes for what I believe must surely be God’s favorite breakfast food, I found a sad little canister of quick grits made by a less-than-trusted brand.

Better subpar grits than no grits, right? My heart sank as I put them in the cart.

In Advent we prepare to remember something that the world did not expect. There may have been signs that something special was coming 2000 years ago, but no one knew how and no one expected the way it would come. When people went looking for a Messiah, wouldn’t they have looked for a strong and powerful man? One who was rich? One who was well-known to the religious powers-that-be? Would they really have ever looked for a baby born in a barn behind the inn, with an unwed woman as his mother?

But that’s how Jesus did come. And that’s how Christ still comes today.

Last night we had cheese grits with dinner. I can say without a doubt that they are the best grits I have ever eaten. They were perfectly cooked, wonderfully complemented with cheddar, and slightly spiced with the peppers. I turned to Heidi and joked, “well done, thy good and faithful Yankee.” I never thought the best grits of my life would be cooked by a upstate New York girl in a house in Vermont.

But really, I should expect the unexpected. I should expect that because I’m a follower of the one who came to be with us, to transform this world, not in power and might, but as a child. And, like I said, that’s how Christ still comes today: unexpected, lighting up the most lonely and desolate places, changing everything. Jesus still comes into this world in ways that are as surprising as outstanding grits coming out of a Vermont kitchen. And if we just open our hearts up to the possibilities, we will find him all around us, even in those unexpected places. Especially in those.

Question: What surprising places have you seen Jesus this Advent?

Prayer: Holy God, you send our son to bless us in the most unexpected places. As we approach Christmas, open our hearts up to Christ’s presence. Help us to see all the ways that Christ is breaking into our lives and into the world. And give us the joy that comes from finding Christ’s surprising gifts in surprising places. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 18 – Open It

from the United Church of Christ

from the United Church of Christ

We’ve been finishing our Christmas shopping here in Vermont. We try to buy local for as much of it as possible, but there are a few items that you just can’t get around here. For those, we went online. Which means that for the past few days the UPS truck has been sliding its way up our icy road to bring us a box or two.

I should say that most of the gifts aren’t a surprise. We each come up with a short list of things we might want, and we stick to that. But we each usually try to surprise the other with a little something too. Which is why when Heidi texted me from the house yesterday to say a strange box was at the door and she thought it had been mistakenly delivered to us instead of the neighbors I hurriedly texted back, “DON’T OPEN IT!”

This time of year it can feel like the world outside the church is full of gifts and the inside the doors of the church we are screaming, “don’t open it!” In Advent we are quick to remind others that technically the Christmas is not here yet, and that we need to wait. And, though I’m a diehard believer in observing Advent, sometimes it must feel like the world is offering carols and lights and parties and the church is only offering waiting.

And none of us like to wait. We don’t like waiting in grocery store lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting for admissions letters or test results or anything else. So why do we wait for joy in the church?

My mom had a rule. We were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. The idea was that we had been waiting a long time, and though the big show was Christmas morning, it was okay to celebrate a little ahead of time. And on the week following the third Sunday, we are called to celebrate a little bit too. This is the week we light that pink candle, that visual reminder of both the purple candles of Advent and the white of Christmas, and talk about joy. And the thing about that is that we don’t have to wait until Christmas Eve, or even Christmas day, to mean it. It may be Advent, but we know what is coming. We know that God is about to bring joy into this world. So, maybe it’s okay for us to practice being joyful?

Sometimes Christians talk a lot about joy, but we don’t really seem all that joyful. When I look around during the Christmas season I see a lot of that. We either have admonitions to not celebrate yet, or we have Christian leaders on news channels using joyless phrases like “the war on Christmas”. But what would it look like if instead of either holding our joy to ourselves, or waging all out war with others, we stopped waiting to share that joy?

What if instead we looked at the world and said, “Go ahead…open it. Open one. Let it be a reminder of what’s about to happen. Because, it’s going to be good?” I believe we can do that. I believe we should do that. And I believe there are more than enough gifts to go around from now until Christmas morning.

Question: If you could give one spiritual gift of joy to someone else between now and Christmas, who would it be and how would you do it?

Prayer: Joyfully, O God, we truly do adore you. Help us to live out that joy together this time of year. Make us witnesses to the joy that Christ brings. And strengthen us to speak joyful words to a world in need of more. Let joy be our gift to the world, and help us to give it with only these words: Open it. Amen.

Questioning Advent: Day 17 – Socks, Boxer Shorts, and Joy

1456055_550081655069225_381737962_nYesterday a package arrived at our local post office from the UK. My in-laws, who live in Liverpool, had sent a box full of Christmas gifts for my wife and I. Last week a similar one arrived via Virginia from my parents. Heidi and I are lucky. Though we both came out to our parents well before legalized same-sex marriage or “Modern Family”, we never faced familial rejection for being gay. In fact, when we were married last year our families sat in the front pews of the church.

Our wedding day was filled with joy. In fact, most of our days are filled more with joy than with anything else. So, when we come to this third week of Advent when we are called to focus on “joy”, I think about all the blessings I’ve received, including a wonderful marriage, and parents on both sides who support that marriage.

But I know not everyone knows that joy. Because even now, 19 years after I told my parents I was gay, plenty of kids don’t get the kind of response that I received.

The Rev. Jeffrey Dirrim is a pastor in my tradition, the United Church of Christ. Several years ago he started a ministry to LGBTQ youth who were either homeless, or at risk of becoming so. That ministry was called Footsteps because one of the things he did was to make sure they had shoes. Today that ministry has grown into a new church start called Rebel and Divine United Church of Christ. And Pastor Dirrim and the others working in this ministry have become something to those youth that many have never had before: adults they can trust.

When the adults who are supposed to care about you the most throw you out on the street because you tell them who you really are, how are you supposed to believe in joy? When you have a bag packed and ready to go because you think that rejection is coming, how can you feel excited about Christmas? And when many of those same adults do so because of what their churches tell them, how are you supposed to believe in the love of Christ?

This year Rebel and Divine is doing a Christmas shoe and underwear drive. They work tirelessly to somehow turn a $20 donation into brand new shoes, underwear, socks, and more. Then they wrap it, write a personalized card, and deliver it on Christmas morning with an ornament to one of the youth they serve. For many of these young people, it’s the only gift they’ll get this Christmas.

No kid should be treated the way that these young people have been. But I give thanks for the people at Rebel and Divine UCC who are bringing joy to them in the form of wool socks and Converse shoes and boxer shorts this Christmas morning. And I give thanks that there is a way for those of us who have an extra $20 in our pockets to make that joy spread a little further.

I’m joyful today. I’m joyful about a life’s journey that has led to this warm home on a snowy day with the love of my life baking cookies in the kitchen. I’m joyful about a church that embraces us for who we are, and a church that blesses with joy the ministry of Pastor Dirrim and others like him. And I want others to know that kind of joy too.

Question: Can you can spare a little extra this Christmas to spread joy to others?

Prayer: God, you have given us so much to be joyful about in our lives. And yet, this world still feels so joyless sometimes. God, bless the ones who feel rejected at Christmas. Bless the ones who have been left on their own. Bless the ones who do not expect Christmas joy. And bless the ones who want to change that. May they be strengthened by your Holy Spirit to be the bearers of joy to all your children. Amen.

If you can spare something extra this season, and would like to help Rebel and Divine UCC to spread some Christmas joy to LGBTQ homeless youth in Phoenix, please take a look at this link: http://rebeldivineucc.org

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 11 – Wading In

IMG_0941

East Branch of the Deerfield River, Green Mountain National Forest

Vermont is a great place if you like to fly fish. The cold trout streams hold their fair share of browns, rainbows, and brookies throughout the late spring and summer and into early fall. During trout season I often find myself heading out to the national forest early in the morning, or rushing out after dinner to catch the dying light. I’ve found that even on a day when I catch nothing, the beauty of the river and peaceful rhythm of casting are good enough for me.

Vermont streams aren’t always easy to fish, though, particularly if you try to wade in them. They’re rocky, the stones get slippery, and the bottoms are so uneven that one step you can be standing on fairly solid ground, and the next you can be chest deep in water. I’ve found myself thrashing so loudly in the water that I’m sure I warned every trout in the river to stay way.

After a few full-body dunks in the Deerfield River I tried to fish from the shore. It didn’t work. The fish are smart enough to stay in the deep waters, and there are enough trees around the bank that my line didn’t last that long. I realized that if I really wanted to do this, I had to wade in.

John the Baptist didn’t get his name by accident (or because he went to First Baptist Church of the Wilderness). A better translation for his name might be “John the Baptizer”. He stood by the river baptizing the people who came to him, eventually including Jesus himself. For the ones who were baptized, the waters were the mark of something new. A rededication. A physical reminder of their immersion in God’s love and grace. All the while that John was telling the people to get ready for something new, he was baptizing them. The water became a symbol of what was next.

There’s something about standing in water that reminds me that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. The winter’s snow melts into the headwaters of mountain streams in Vermont. Those streams join to form a river that merges with others south of the border with Massachusetts, and by the time the Connecticut River gushes out into the Long Island Sound, there’s no stopping it. The ocean carries those Vermont waters further than I can imagine.

The same is true of our baptism. Whether we are sprinkled with water that came from a well, or a church faucet, or a bottle of Jordan River water that someone swears their aunt brought back from her visit to Israel, or whether we are dunked headlong into a lake, it doesn’t matter. That water changes us. And it makes us a part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. It gives us the potential to participate in something we can only imagine.

Just like I’ve learned that standing on the shore of a trout stream does little good, I’ve found the less I pay attention to the waters of baptism, the less fruitful my life is as well. In fact, what I’ve learned wading trout streams has taught me something valuable. When I wade into a stream, the more I try to stay in shallow water, the more likely I am to lose my footing. But the deeper I wade, the more I become one with the current, and the more I find myself standing on a solid foundation.

In Advent we are invited to stand in deeper water. In this season Christ calls us into our baptism in new ways. We are asked to step into a small stream that is heading towards incredible places. But we get to make a decision about if, and how far in, we will wade. Sometimes that river seems cold. Sometimes it seems treacherous. And sometimes it seems rocky. But I’ve found that every time I’ve waded deep, there has been a blessing in it.

Question: Where in your faith life do you find yourself holding back out of fear? What would it mean to immerse yourself?

Prayer: Creator of the the waters, the rivers, and the seas, bless those of us who stand on the shore. Call us into the living waters. Steady our feet on rocky ground. Keep us safe in the midst of the deep. And join us with one another, bound by the blessing of our common baptismal waters. 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.