Sunday, December 31, 2006

visible light (christmas eve 2006)

We gather on Christmas eve, 2006 to bear witness once again to a simple truth: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. When God’s people have tried to get their minds wrapped around what the glory and greatness of God is like, they have been drawn again and again to the image of light.

In the creation, God separated light from darkness, creating the greater light (sun) and the lesser light (moon). God stopping Moses in his tracks in the form of a burning bush. Jesus, was the light coming into the world. And the future vision at the end of the story is of a city that is so bright that there is no moon or sun to shine upon it, for the glory of God will be its light and its lamp will be the lamb.

In the scriptures for this evening, we are told by Isaiah the prophet that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, and then by Luke that the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

When we bear witness to the truth, about ourselves, about our world, we try to describe what it means to live, honestly and not falsely, hopefully and not in despair, faithfully and not superficially, and we could do much worse than this simple phrase of John the evangelist in chapter one, verse five:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it


In this one verse, a universe of meaning is contained. First, there is darkness. Christians acknowledge that there is darkness. One of our best novelists died last month, William Styron, born in the Tidewater area of Virginia, educated at Duke. Among his better-known novels were the Confessions of Nat Turner, which chronicled the darkness of the racial struggle in America, and Sophie’s Choice, which narrated the horror of the Holocaust. Meryl Streep received the Academy Award for her portrayal of Sophie, and the decision that a person should never have to make.

Later in his life Styron wrote a memoir entitled Darkness Visible, which turned out to be about his own struggle with depression.

In Styron’s life and art we see the truth that there is darkness, and the darkness is both out there and in here. Sometimes we project the darkness onto others---this group of people, this race, this political party, this nation…..when the darkness is within us, and that is why we make the connection. Sometimes we deny the darkness that is within us. The power of William Styron’s art, across his lifetime, as we look back upon it, was his willingness to see the darkness, in the world, but also within himself.

Christians live in a world of darkness. This is our honest, sober judgment about life as it is. Do you remember the words of the poet, Robert Frost:

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain -- and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

The Bible deals with darkness: Why do you hide your face?”, the Psalmist asks God 44.24). Elijah in the cave, Jesus prays in the garden, “Why have you forsaken me?”, then he is three days in the tomb, descending into hell, for our sakes, Paul struck blind on the road to Damascus. The spiritual writers would later call this “the dark night of the soul”.

More than one person has noted that our culture wants to live, not only in the denial of death, but in the denial of darkness. If artificial light were a drug”, one reporter recently noted, “we would be addicted”. I looked this week at an aerial photo of the United States at night. It was fairly bright, especially east of the Mississippi, and along the coast. Across the country there were very few dark patches.

This could be an analogy for our spiritual lives. We are sometimes in denial about the darkness that is visible, the fightings within and fears without, the demons that arrive at noonday and the scourges that dehumanize so many across the world.


Let us make the confession: there is darkness. But there is more. For the scripture says, the light shines in the darkness.

The Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once gave a parable:

”When the prosperous man on a dark but star-lit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close around him.

But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant driving without lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night.

So the deceived live in the temporal existence: either, they are preoccupied with the necessities of life, and too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in their prosperity they have, as it were, lanterns lighted, and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable--but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars”.

The light shines in the darkness. The question becomes: do we see it? Do we see the light?, In the language of the parable, “do we have a view of the stars?”

I for one love receiving Christmas letters from friends, letters that desribe how the last year has gone. The longer the letter, the better. I really do want to stay connected with friends who are scattered geographically. As I read a number of them, I have learned to sense that there is often a mixture of darkness and light in our lives.

I appreciate friends who are honest about the darkness; and so a letter might read, “this year we lost a family member to death; this year we experienced a health limitation; this year we said goodbye to friends who moved away”. But there is also, in many of the letters, an undeniable light: a birth, a wedding, a recognition, a cancer overcome, an anniversary. This year, the Wake Forest letters seem to be all about an “Orange Bowl”. Do you know anything about that?

Reading the letters is like sitting in a subdued sanctuary and watching the candles pierce the gloom of sin and sadness with their light, it is like the awakening to the first signs of visible light. It is like watching the slow emergence of a child, leaving behind the darkness of a womb for the light of day,

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

Our spiritual rebirth happens when we turn down all of the artificial light that distracts us, to enter first into the darkness so that we can see the true light that is coming into the world. Our Jewish friends are very good at this, using as little electricity as possible on Sabbath, so that the candles make the light visible, and at Hannakuh insisting that the light chases away the darkness: the more we live darkness, the greater our need for the light.

The light shines in the darkness. So far, these are truths that are fairly evident to most people, if they are observant and attentive. There is darkness. But in the darkness, there is light. A secular radio anchor noted in passing, somewhere in the last day or so, that the holidays “bring out the worst and the best in people”. That can be said with any kind of conviction or belief.


The scripture, however, takes one more step, and it is a step of faith. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is promise of Christmas faith. The darkness did not overcome it. Light is stronger than darkness.

William Cowper lived in rural England, for a time sharing a house with John Newton, the converted slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace”. Cowper himself is known as the author of a number of hymns: God Moves in a Mysterious Way”,There is a Fountain Filled With Blood”, and others. Cowper led a complex life, he was tormented by fears that he had committed the unpardonable sin, he was accused of having had an affair, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and he attempted suicide several times. For an extended period he was kept in an insane asylum for his own protection.

And yet, William Cowper could write a line like “Redeeming Love Has Been My Theme/And Shall Be Till I Die”.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Nelson Mandela, returns to the prison cell at Robben Island, South Africa, where he had been confined for eighteen years, and he lights a large white candle and then gives it to his successor, President Mbeki. The freedom flame can never be put down by anybody”, Mandela tells him.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

A member of our church struggles over a long term with a persistent and painful form of cancer. The couple is always gracious, always welcoming. We pray and then we shake hands, and as I am leaving, I hear these words:

We thank God for every day”, she says. God has been good to us”.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Let us not be silent about the darkness. It is real.

Let us pay attention to the light. It is present.

But let us believe deeply in the promise of our faith. As William Cowper wrote, again

“Sometimes a light surprises a Christian when she sings
It is the Lord who rises with healing in his wings
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining to cheer it after rain”.

When you light the candle, it represents the hope of the world, a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And even for those of us who have held these candles in our hands before, it is always new. And even for those of us who could recite the Christmas scripture from memory, the good news is always a needed word, an honest word, a hope-filled word.

To a people who walked in the land of deep darkness,
on them light has shined.

For unto us a child is born
Unto us a son is given.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.

Sources: Phillip Yancey, Reaching For The Invisible God; Peter Friedrichi, “Fifteen Ways of Seeing The Light”, Georgia Review; The Parables of Soren Kierkegaard.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

christmas soundtrack

Ray Charles, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer
Bruce Cockburn, O Come All Ye Faithful
Diana Krall, Winter Wonderland
Blind Boys of Alabama, Last Month Of The Year
Vince Guaraldi, Christmas Time Is Here
Kathy Mattea, Nothing But A Child
The Chieftains, Once In Royal David's City
Taize Community, Magnificat
Dave Brubeck, Away In A Manger
Bruce Cockburn, The Huron Carol
John Prine, Silent Night All Day Long
Kathy Mattea, Good News
John Fahey, Lo How A Rose Eer Blooming
Michael Card, Emmanuel
Benny Carter, A Child Is Born
The Chieftains, The Wexford Carol
Blind Boys of Alabama, Go Tell It On The Mountain
Dave Brubeck, We Three Kings
Ray Charles, The Little Drummer Boy
Vince Guaraldi, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Friday, December 22, 2006

what we say and what the world hears

So I was exercising at the ymca, trying to keep the holiday food onslaught from doing more damage than is good (I am addicted to peanut brittle); I was running on the eliptical machine and listening to Christmas music on the ipod, when, on the television screen a few feet away, Franklin Graham appeared. Franklin smiled. The anchor smiled.

I could not hear the sound, but here is the insight: I did not need to hear the sound.

The anchor proceeded with the interview, and the piece could be broken down into three phases.

First, Franklin was holding an Operation Christmas Child box, and talking about it. The anchor's face signified warmth and interest. Franklin talked about the boxes, and about how girls receive a certain kind of box and boys a different kind of box. It has to do with a ribbon or something. I can't remember the specifics.

End of phase one.

In the second phase of the interview, there was a picture of the aging couple, Billy and Ruth Graham, parents of Franklin. Billy Graham is the legendary evangelist, and the Grahams live in Montreat, which is a mecca for Southern Presbyterians and is located in the western part of our state, just east of Asheville. I attended square dances there in the summers when I was a college student, working in a nearby camp. The question was regarding a controversy, reported first in the Washington Post and then in the Charlotte Observer, over where the Grahams are to be buried. Ruth wants to be buried in the mountains, at a retreat center named "The Cove", near home. Franklin wants his father to be buried in Charlotte, in a library/memorial that is being constructed.

The reporter's face became tense; the warmth and compassion were no longer evident. No resolution emerged from this part of the conversation.

In the third phase, a picture of Ted Haggard, the gay megachurch pastor in Colorado who had been instrumental in conservative movements restricting gay marriage through political elections, flashed onto the screen. The questions were about how Franklin Graham felt about this issue, and about the prevalence of this practice among evangelicals---another large church evangelical had gone public a few days early.

So, here is the media template. The media is mildly interested in the good works of Christians. The media is somewhat more interested in conflict and division among Christians, especially prominent Christians. The media is very interested in hypocrisy among Christian leaders. The media's interest is "off the charts" about the interface of sexuality, televangelism, and the megachurch.

Sadly, Franklin thought he was proclaiming the gospel. The last two phases conveyed the most prominent meaning in this particular public appearance. Those who are already believers, of course, would see it differently, but then, that is not an evangelist's primary audience. In sum, Franklin lost more than he gained in his appearance on the morning television news cycle. The news folks got exactly what they wanted.

Here ends the lesson on the difference between what we say and what the world actually hears.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

praying with mary

O God,

We pause, in anticipation of some gift that you want to give to us.

We give thanks for gifts of food and friendship, for gifts of service and song, for gifts of community and compassion.

As we pause, we remember Mary, her faith, her trust.

Let us, with Mary, rejoice in You.

Let us, with Mary, acknowledge your greatness.

Let us, with Mary, remember your mercy from generation to generation.

Let us, with Mary, confess that you fill the hungry with good things.

Let us, with Mary, be open to a new birth.

And let us, with Mary, in this busy season, pause to ponder all that this means.

And then let us return to the activities before us, glorifying and praising you for all that we have received. .

In the name of Jesus Christ, your greatest gift to the world, our Savior.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

come, lord jesus

O life of God
around, within, among us
come to our awareness
move us to repentance
make straight the paths
that lead us out of ourselves
to You
and back again.

O life of God
around, within, among us
come, Lord Jesus
with fire and life
our roots drinking deeply
from a world that knows
you not, destroy
but in your mercy
plant us again
by living streams
that we might bear fruit.

O life of God
around, within, among us
come, Lord Jesus.

Friday, December 15, 2006

family stuff/pastoral stuff/a movie

It is a quiet Friday evening in Advent, the flurry of parties having passed, the Lessons and Carols service coming this Sunday (Advent III, Joy), and thus no sermon to prepare this week (!), and then the week leading to Christmas Eve, falling on a Sunday this year. Our older daughter returns from college tomorrow (yeah), our younger daughter is at the is quiet.

Tomorrow evening a young man named Jacques from Haiti comes to live with us, as he begins his studies at Central Piedmont Community College. We have known Jacques through our church's medical work in northern Haiti (see the links to the right), and we are excited that he will join our family and pursue his dream of a college education. Jacques, or Jack, is one of the translators for the medical teams that serve in Cap Haitien, and some in our church have known him all of his life. The Christian life is an adventure, for Jack and for us, but we sense that this is something good. We are excited...stay tuned!

My wife and I went to see The Queen earlier in the week. It is a plausible/fictional retelling of the response of the Royal Family in England to the death of Princess Diana. It is a movie about traditions, and how they can become divorced from the yearnings of the people; it is a story about privilege, and the insulation that can lead to strange behaviors; it is also a tale of leadership, particularly in the actions of Tony Blair, recently elected Prime Minister. A couple of scenes in the film are especially poignant: Elizabeth is able to muster compassion for a deer that has been killed by a hunter, but cannot find any depth of feeling for the deceased mother of her grandchildren. And in another moment, she warns Tony Blair that the people will turn on him, at some point, in the same way they have turned on her. One thinks of Blair's embrace of the war in Iraq, a position that severed him from the yearnings of the masses of England.

There are learnings in this movie for anyone in a position of leadership, especially leadership in the church. When Blair appeals to the Queen to come down to London, to become engaged in the experience of the people, to help them in their grief, one thinks of a God who who leaves heaven, who enters into the human race in the form of a child who will become a King, and yet who will know great suffering. And one thinks of the ordinary call that comes to a pastor---as it did in our church this week---to meet with two adult daughters in the death of their father.

I am behind in attending movies, of late---I hope to correct this omission after Christmas---but I do recommend The Queen.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

the path of peace (advent 2)

In Advent we live in the “between times”, situated in the midst of a promise received and a fulfillment anticipated. If you were in this sanctuary last Sunday evening, and you experienced the glorious music of the Chancel Choir and Handel’s Messiah, you sensed this: from the thunder of “every valley shall be exalted” to the comfort of “his yoke is easy, his burden is light” to the confidence of the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Advent and Christmas are about promise and fulfillment, and when you are situated in the midst of that, you and I are waiting for something to happen.

Today, we await the gift of peace, a gift promised to us, a gift we pray for, a a gift whose fulfillment we yearn for. We live in the “between times” by learning from one of our ancestors, Zechariah. Zechariah was an observant Jew who lived in the hill country outside of Jerusalem. He had been preparing the temple for worship, which was his assignment, when the messenger, the angel, spoke to him: “Do not be afraid, your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, you are to name him John”.

How can his be? Zechariah responded, my wife and I are old! And then he falls silent, and is told that he will remain silent until the child is born.

Two things to notice here: first, Zechariah is doing his religious duty when God intervenes. This is true more often than we realize. There is much criticism about ritual in faith, about structure and formality --(Sometimes I think if I ever hear the words “I am spiritual but I am not religious” again I am going to become nauseus!)--but look: Zechariah is going about the business of caring for the worship space of the people and God shows up and speaks. This happens more often than we realize.

There is also an echo of an earlier ancestor couple of ours, Abraham and Sarah, who were also old, who were also invited into an adventure, who were also given a child.

And so, Zechariah enters a time of silence; he is unable to speak. Elizabeth is carrying the child, who will become John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Mary spend three months together, where they talk about the mysterious future. Then the baby is born. They had thought of naming him after the father, but Elizabeth interrupts, and says, “no, his name will be John”.

All of the relatives responded, “John? We don’t have any relatives named John!” Then Zechariah, silent, asked for a tablet, and, unable to speak, he wrote the words “His name is John”.

Then, Luke tells us, his mouth was opened and he spoke, giving thanks to God. His thanksgiving comes to us as the gospel for today. It comes as both promise and fulfillment, in the form of a child, his son, and what his son will mean for the world. He will prepare the way for the Lord. He will give us knowledge of salvation. And he will guide our feet in the way of peace.

The last phrase is the one that I want us to reflect on: he will guide our feet in the way of peace.

A reporter for a major newspaper was writing an article on the Jewish feast of tabernacles, which takes place in the fall of the year. He decided to visit the home of an Orthodox Rabbi, and they sat in the backyard, in a booth, a tent the family had constructed. After discussing their tradition, the rabbi’s teenage sons joined them. The reporter noted that these sons of an orthodox rabbi were not like the teenagers you often encountered at the mall. They were dressed formally, they wore yarmalkes on their heads, and longs spirals of hair covered their cheeks.

The reporter looked at them, and thought to himself, “how unique”. Then he looked down at their feet and they were both wearing “Air Jordan” tennis shoes, loose and unlaced. At that moment he realized the rabbi could not keep his kids from being a part of the culture. He thought of an incident that occurred at that time, a young boy in the inner city being murdered because he refused to give up his tennis shoes, the sad reality that human life was worth less to some than the value of the shoes they saw on the feet of their heroes.

What does this have to do with the prophecy of Zechariah? He will guide our feet in the way of peace. In the scripture, our feet are symbolic. How we walk defines who we are, as people, and determines where we are going.

In C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, there is a lion, Aslan, who is a Christ-figure. At one point in the story Aslan breathes on the feet of the giant, in order to bring him back to life. Don’t worry”, says the Lion, “once his feet have been set right, the rest will follow”.

Could it be that Christ is breathing on our feet, and guiding us into the way of peace? And how is this happening?

If we are going to be followers of Jesus, if we are somehow here to prepare the way for the Lord, if our feet are going to be guided into the way of peace, we begin by taking small steps.

Let there be peace on earth, the hymn says, and let it begin with me.

I have shared this experience with some of you. Our older daughter was in middle school, and she was very politically interested and active. She attended some event and came home with a bumper sticker, which read, simply, PEACE IS POSSIBLE.

I still have that bumper sticker. Would I put it on my bumper?”, she asked, well actually she didn’t ask, she sort of demanded. I do have a devious streak in me, at times, and I saw this as a teachable moment, and so I seized it. At that time Pam and were spending lots of time driving two daughters to a variety of activities, music lessons and basketball practices and so on, and an alternative purpose emerged for that bumper sticker.

“Liz”, I said, “could we put the bumper sticker, where we could all see it, inside the car?” That would remind me, and all of us, inside the car, that PEACE IS POSSIBLE.

This wasn’t satisfactory, but you get the idea.

Peace begins with us, you and me, and it happens as we take small steps. One of my favorite verses of scripture is found at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans: If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (12. 17).

This brief verse teaches us, first that sometimes peace is impossible. Will the sunnis and Shiites be at peace with each other? Will the peoples of Darfur be at peace with each other? Impossible. And yet, remember the promise, made early in Luke’s gospel: What is impossible for us is possible for God. So far as it depends on you….we cannot take responsibility for the actions of others, but we can for our own actions. Live peaceably with all…it begins with you and me, as we take small steps.

This summer I was teaching a Bible Study here on God’s grace---which is the unique thing about Christianity, the really distinctive thing about our faith, grace is the reality that we always receive more in this life than we deserve---I was reading and teaching and sharing all of this---and an email arrived one day, from a person in my family’s past, someone who had done great harm to someone I love in my family. The man who wrote me lives in another state, but must have tracked me down on the internet, and in the process learned that I was a minister. I am assuming that he is in a twelve-step program, where you go to the people you have harmed and make amends. This is what he was doing.

He was confessing, he was amending his life, he was asking for reconciliation, for grace.

What do you do?

We had some correspondence, and finally I said, after some prayer, that I could not speak for the person in my family, but from my side, I held nothing against him, and that I wished him God’s peace.

He wrote back, told me where he lived, and said that he was managing a pizza restaurant. If I ever came to his town he would be glad to treat me to a free pizza.

Sometimes I wish peace weren’t so complicated. A small step, maybe. This is what peace really is, where most of us live. It is knowing that Christ is our peace, and that his peace always comes as a gift. It is taking small steps to live in that peace. And then it is sharing the peace of Christ with others.

Last week I tried to link the gift of hope with the ritual of holy communion. This morning I want to link the gift of peace with another ritual: passing the peace. I don’t know about you, but in our house rituals are important. Finding a Christmas tree, setting it up, just right, decorating it (actually Pam decorates it), hanging the stockings, finding the gift for each other.

Rituals are important. One of our rituals is passing the peace. We ask you to do that after the service has concluded. I know that some people don’t like it----it spreads germs. Someone else will say “I come to worship God, I don’t want all of this touchy feeling stuff with other people”. I heard you.

And I know that it sometimes becomes something else: “The peace of the Lord be with you…remember we have a committee meeting this week!”…The peace of Christ be with you…where did you get that necklace?”…

It is a ritual, but it is important. It is a physical bodily reminder that worship has a vertical and a horizontal dimension. The vertical part is “towards God”. But the horizontal part is “towards each other”. Christ is our peace in relation to God and to each other.

And so we come to worship, hopefully, to know some of God’s peace in a world scarred by warfare and terrorism and torture, in families that have been broken, and even within ourselves, confessing that souls and our spirits are out of tune with the rhythms of grace and mercy and peace.

We come for these reasons, but in the process something else happens. When our feet have been guided in the way of peace, we begin to walk with the prince of peace, we begin to announce the good tidings of peace, we come to know the blessing that is given to the peacemakers, whom Jesus called the children of God.

It can be discouraging to come to the second Sunday of Advent, year after year, lighting the candle of peace, reading the scriptures about peace, preaching a sermon on the topic of peace. Discouraging, if I did not know that I am living in the “between times”, between promise and fulfillment, between hope and joy, between the first and the second comings of Christ.

And so I pray that we will learn to beat our swords into plowshares, in Advent, 2006. I pray that we will, all of us, discover the small steps that lead us to the holy mountain where the lion and the lamb lie down together.

As I read the gospels, it seems that Jesus wasn’t all that concerned with how we feel, or even what we think. He did call us to follow him, and in the process of following him, we would be his disciples.

I pray this morning not that God will do something in my heart, in the way I feel, or in my mind, in the way that I think, but that the spirit of peace will breathe upon me, and guide my feet in the way of peace.

Brothers and sisters, hear the good news: peace is possible.

(Sources: Terry Mattingly, “And Now A Word From Your Culture”, Shaping Our Future; Lillian Daniel, “Empire’s Sleepy Embrace”, Anxious About Empire).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

the sign of peace (advent 1)

A friend recently shared this experience. He was taking a plane flight from Birmingham to Louisville. Like everyone else, he arrived early and waited for the call to take his seat. As he was waiting he noticed a very attractive woman, so attractive that he had to keep himself from staring. He entered the airplane when his zone was called, sat down on a row with three seats, he on the aisle, and an older woman near the window. The middle seat was empty, but as the time came near, the woman came in and, sure enough, this was her seat. At first her presence almost made him uncomfortable, but then she began to talk to him and the other seatmate about things, they exchanged generalities, talked about work, and then, the question: “do you have family”?

Her face lit up. She was going to Louisville to meet the special person in her life. He is amazing”, she said. They talked a little longer, she described him. Where did they meet? We met over the internet”, she said. She literally could not wait to arrive in Louisville. As they touched down she began to call his cell phone number, but there was no answer. She called again. No answer. She called again. A voice answered. Not the person she was hoping to reach. She went to baggage claim, the woman walking beside her. It soon became apparent that there would be no meeting, no connection.

In this life we hope for a better future. At its core, there are many gospels of hope in our culture: a paradise in which to retire with beautiful people, maybe on a beach somewhere; our children opportunities for our children that we did not have; a cure for a dreaded and debilitating disease; our team will win this Saturday, or Sunday; this virtual person will indeed turn out to be the real thing.

In this life we hope for a better future. And so it is good that we come together, on the first Sunday of Advent to think about hope, to profess our hope in God, in God’s future, in God’s messiah. Hope is one of the greatest gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13), and hope is also one of our most significant human needs. When we lose hope, our very lives are threatened.

It is true that hope is always practiced in the midst of ambiguity. Suffering and hope are always mixed together, despair and hope, fatigue and hope. If you listen to the scriptures this morning, you can hear that:

God is going to fulfil the promise, Israel is going to be saved, they are going to live in safety. When do we start talking about safety and security? When there is a danger.

God is going to teach us his paths, lead us into the truth, all of his paths are steadfast love and faithfulness. When do we start talking about direction and guidance? When we are lost and adrift.

In this life we hope for a better future, but sometimes we take our eyes off the prize. And so we need to become re-acquainted with hope once again, and that is one of the gifts of Advent. The people were hopeful that a messiah would come. This hope was grounded in the word of God: I will fulfil the promise, God says…Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

And so hope begins with God’s promise. The promise calls for our response: be on guard, be alert, stay awake, look for the signs. That is where you will find hope. The scriptures train us to look for the signs, and to sift the real from the unreal, the truth from false teaching. Look for the signs: a righteous branch will spring up, a ruler will watch over the people with justice and righteousness, the fig tree will sprout leaves,there will be distress among the nations and roaring in the seas. Look for the signs.

This morning, I want us to focus on one of the messianic signs, one that is obvious, today, and yet we might indeed miss it. When we say the words, in the Holy Communion, Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again, we are professing our hope in a better future, in this life and in the life to come. But God is not limited to words, and so we look for other signs: the lighting of candles; the gathering of friends, the extension of hope to the stranger; and, one of the most profound signs of hope, the meal, the feast.

For some, this is a season of family meals. The family meal is in part about our love of food, and for some a genuine gift for preparing a feast. Beyond the feast itself, for many, the family meal in this season is about a dream, and a hope: All are safely gathered in”, the aroma of a perfectly good meal and the appearance of a perfectly behaved child and the demeanor of a perfectly appreciative spouse. This is the hope and the dream. Right? And we do have that fear within, sometimes, that the dream will turn into a nightmare. We want to avoid the whole thing bursting into flames, it ends, crashes, it’s either too loud or too quiet, and someone says, “let’s get our coat and leave!”

Because of mobility---we are so scattered out---and because of pace---we are so distracted---parents from children, spouses from each other, adult children from their parents---there is a great hope placed in this meal. There is a lot at stake, maybe too much. And yet sometimes the meal only reminds us of how far we are from each other, how great the distance is that separates us.

We know from experience: A meal can be an experience of communion, or a bitter taste of division.

Some of us can remember a part of our tragic history, when whites and blacks could not eat together. Deep within we knew this was wrong, but we held onto our divisions. This week the Pope traveled to Turkey, to meet with the Orthodox, 200 million Christians with whom Catholics are estranged, and with Muslim leaders. Two of the three families of the Abrahamic faith, deeply divided. If you want to cast blame, there is enough on all sides. The point is not the blame. What would be the end result of the pilgrimage? It had something to do with our desire, our dream, for wholeness, for communion. Sometimes, even in the smallest families, with share the same hope, don’t we?

One of the signs of the Messiah’s coming was that there would be a great feast. People would gather from the north and the south and the east and the west to feast at the table. And one of the signs he gave us was that same meal, a meal that is not only done in remembrance of him, but in anticipation of his coming again. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

And so the church of Jesus exists to share this meal. It is one of the two or three most important things we do. It is a sign of hope.

In this life, in the life to come, we hope for a better future. This has a global dimension. This has a congregational dimension. This has a personal dimension. A few brief reflections on these hopes.

A Global Hope

I hope that our church continues to be drawn to the larger world, for it is getting smaller, and more interdependent, and the hope of salvation is not just for me, it is not just in my heart, but it is a hope for the world that God loves. And so I hope our church never loses touch with Africa or Haiti or Cambodia.

A few weeks ago I was in the Chapel Service on Sunday evening. My wife Pam was speaking, and some very gifted people in our congregation, among them Joan Carlson and Len Bullock and Doris Mock and others were leading it. When the time for the offering came, Ron Miller spoke about it. That evening it would go toward the Methodist Theological Seminary in the Congo, for the training of pastors in Africa. Ron spoke of the missionary couple who are the leaders there, who had recently been here, and then he gave the invitation. Tuition, for three years for one student is $2500. This also covers the cost for the spouse to learn a trade, and for the family’s living expenses, for three years. $2500.

The next morning Bill Jeffries told me that a person had given $2500 in that offering. What a sign of hope? Imagine the difference in that family’s life, in that pastor’s message to the church in Africa.

A Hope For Our Congregation

I hope that new disciples, new Christians will become a part of this great church. I hope that people who are making important decisions will turn to God and to the scriptures and to relationships with friends who can support them and hold them accountable. When all of that collapses, what happens? People board airplanes, they take great risks, to find community.

I hope that our church continues to think about people in our community who are really facing pretty stiff odds. Are their children going to make it through school? Are they going to have a place to sleep tonight, or to eat breakfast tomorrow?

And I hope that our church, especially in this season, becomes a community of people that bears one another’s burdens, especially the burden of grief. Loss is difficult, especially when someone is missing at the feast. If we have discovered hope in this life, surely we are here to share that hope with others. I rejoice that this often happens in Providence. And this is why I love my work: I believe the local church, the church of Jesus Christ, is the hope of the world.

A Personal Hope

My personal hopes, if I am honest, are pretty simple. The changes I hope for in others, I need to begin to live into myself. If I want other people to be more peaceful, I become more peaceful. If I want other people to be more generous, I become more generous. If I want other people to be more Christ-like, I become more Christ-like.

We are here, this morning, because we have accepted the invitation to the great banquet of the Messiah. And somehow, this meal is a sign of a better future, for you and me, for our church, for our world. This meal, we believe, is a foretaste. As I read scripture, heaven will not be a collection of disembodied ghosts floating around, but a family, gathered at the table, with the Host, the One who knows us and loves us and created us, presiding,

and surely there will be family members we have not met, of every race, every tribe, every tongue, every nation, who have streamed toward the throne of God. And the lamb of God will be at the center of the throne, the sacrifice, the bread, the body broken, the blood, the life shared, for you and for me, but also for every heart that hungers for justice and righteousness and peace.

This Advent, we hope for a better future, in this life, and in the life to come.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Friday, December 01, 2006

advent preparations

Pam and I return again and again to a simple book entitled Unplug The Christmas Machine, first published fifteen years ago in 1991. There is wisdom scattered throughout the pages of this book, and it helps me to scan its pages each Advent, the earlier in the season the better. Today I came across a list of "The Four Things Children Really Want For Christmas": A relaxed and loving time with the family. Realistic expectations about gifts. An evenly paced holiday season. Reliable family traditions.

Reading these "four things" reminds me first that children are not really so different from adults. This can be a stressful time of year---the calendar is filled, the roads are jammed, the stores are crowded---and a little peace and relaxation would seem, at times, like a taste of heaven. Giving and receiving can become complex---especially as we expose ourselves to sophisicated the marketing of products we may not need and cannot afford. The pace can get away from us, and we may find ourselves out of touch with the reason for the season. As a result, traditions are important constants in a changing world, and especially within families that experience transition due to new birth, illness, death, geography or age.

I wonder myself about how the Christmas machine might be unplugged, and here are some of my own attempts---not that I succeed! First, I try to read the birth narratives in the gospels--Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Second, I work through the same devotional book each Advent. It is entitled Watch For The Light (Plough). Third, I try to listen to Christmas music from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas day. This year, I have loaded three hours onto my ipod shuffle. I like many different styles of music, so it never gets boring. At the end of the season I work my way through W.H. Auden's For The Time Being, and look forward to visiting my family in Georgia.

I try to say "yes" to as many parties as possible. As a pastor, I find this is one the best ways to get to know the people in our church. This also requires that I do something else: I try to exercise every day during the season. This lowers the stress, counteracts the delicious food, and allows me to listen to the music on the ipod!

The church has to accomplish a few simple objectives during this season, and they are always in my thoughts: to allow the pace of Advent, and the telling of the story of Jesus, the source of our hope, peace, joy, love and light, to become a part of my experience each day; to encourage our members to invite friends during this season (many family members and neighbors are especially open to an invitation to church at Christmas); and to fully fund our mission for the present and coming year. The last objective allows us to do so many good things in the name of Jesus, and to spread his light into every corner of the world.

I find, as I live through the days of Advent, that I long for the simple things: relaxation, realistic expectations, an even pace, reliable family traditions. It is a gift, once again, to make the Advent journey, especially with the PUMC congregation.

Finally, I send out a daily e-mail message during Advent, that is filled with a variety of things, including odd humor, musical suggestions, biblical reflection, etc. If you want to be added, write me at