Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When Worlds Collide

"Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good." Maya Angelou

I went into the bank the other day to make a deposit and, as sometimes happens, an overly-friendly clerk invited me to her desk, saying, “Come over here; I can help you with that.”

She was all smiles and full of good cheer, for which I was mostly not in the mood. I had a lot on my plate for the day and not a lot of time and I knew full well my deposit was not the focus of her agenda. Her goal was to help me discover all the ways I could save money, grow rich, and improve my lot in life by rearranging what can only laughingly be called my “portfolio” at the bank.

Although her efforts cost me about five minutes more than what I would normally have spent, our time together was tolerable, and concluding our business I was able to return to my errands (except I forgot to pick up my suit).

Life is like that, though. We have our plans, the world has theirs, and sometimes they run in parallel, and at other times they collide. Life happens; you tangle up and you tango on; right?

The first Christmas was not much different.

Mary and Joseph were most unremarkable – a typical Jewish couple. They lived in a small back-water town called Nazareth where nothing special was ever said to have happened.

They were engaged to be married, but had not yet tied the knot. Joseph was a handyman; not much of a prize, really, but a decent enough sort of fellow. Mary’s folks were happy with the financial arrangement they had reached for giving her hand in marriage, so all was well. But then … scandal!

Mary got pregnant. She was sent away to visit her relatives, to “help” Elizabeth – her kinswoman – who was also pregnant. She was sent away, but not soon enough. The people of Nazareth delighted in sharing local news and gossip, and news of Mary’s condition would give them things to talk about for decades yet to come – a very merry Christmas gift, indeed.

I am sure that life, as Mary and Joseph received it from God, was very different from what they had dreamed or conceived of for themselves, but they trusted God was at work in all things and through all things, and so they accepted life on life’s terms.

I don’t know if they felt they could actually say “No” to God, but they did choose to say “Yes” anyway, and consented to be the people God asked them to be: mother, father, nurturer, and protector.

As I have gotten older, Christmas has lost some of its sense of magic and wonder.

Life rolls merrily along. Business needs tending; and things need to be done, but I don’t do them as quickly or as efficiently as I once did. I still whistle while I work, but not as often, and not as brightly as I did in the days of yore, but that’s OK.

God did not create us to be quick and efficient workers, but to be visible and tangible signs of God’s presence in the world. There is nothing magical about reaching out to those in need, but there is something godly in it. There is nothing dramatically wondrous about spending time with those who are hurt or lonely, but there is something godly in it.

Christmas, you see, is not a day, a season, or a feeling; it is the surprising presence of God in our midst.

All the trappings of Christmas – the lights, the tinsel, the presents, the carols, the garland, the trees – they aren’t trappings; they’re traps. They divert our eyes and attention from all God calls us to be and to do: to be God-bearers, like Mary and Joseph – carrying God along life’s journey.

So, keep your eyes open to the works of God in the world all around you. God seeks a place to call home, a place within which to lay down his gifts of love, peace, true joy, and happiness. May God find in you a faithful “yes” in this, our world. Keep whistling and have a Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Visitor

My soul magnifies the Lord … my spirit rejoices …for the Mighty One has done great things for me … Magnificat

Imagine, if you will, receiving news that you were going to have the most wonderful visitor one could imagine. Who would it be?

One might initially think of one’s local celebrities and big-wigs: local politicians, television personalities, or business barons. Pondering for a moment longer and turning the words “most wonderful visitor” over in one’s head, one would be tempted to think bigger – perhaps a governor, senator, or presidential hopeful; maybe a favorite actor, author, musician, or entertainer of note.

Keeping in mind this secret visitor will be visiting you in a week or ten days (depending on the speed of your paper delivery or internet connection), what would you do to prepare for their visit?

I know in our home, no matter how clean, neat, and organized we strive to keep it, you would have to stand back as elbows would fly, mops and rags would be applied to every conceivable surface, and clutter would be packed and hauled to a storage unit well off-site.

We would sweat out a menu compared to which every holiday meal we’d ever done would pale; we would bite the bullet, shopping for groceries in the more exclusive outlets, lest our special guest find our family fare too common or boring.

In short, we would strive to “rise” well above our station in life in an effort to meet the expectations of our visitor. All the while, we would be well aware of just how short we would probably fall, and our lives would be filled with more stress and anxiety than we could imagine or (in all likelihood) handle.

I wonder if Christmas doesn’t do that to some of us. I wonder if our expectations are rightly justified – or of there is some better way to approach the season.

I don’t believe there is any greater “visitor” one can receive than the One who delivered Israel from bondage, or who raised Jesus from the dead.

As wonderful as the birth narrative is, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t put too much time and energy into that part of the story. That’s not to denigrate its importance.

Obviously, it was important enough to put Gabriel to work (the world’s first “Christmas Temp?) getting word out to Elizabeth and Zechariah, and to Mary and Joseph. Perhaps it would help with our holiday preparations to see how those two couples responded to news of their unexpected pregnancies.

First, Zechariah was dumbstruck - literally. He couldn’t say anything, and when his gig was up, he went home. He and Elizabeth did what husbands and wives do, and she became pregnant. They prepared for the birth of their son (John the Baptist); but more importantly, they prepared to help him become the person he would be: Prophet, Judge, and Herald.

Secondly, Mary and Joseph heard the startling news with quite some shock and confusion (not yet being married), and we have every reason to believe they remained chaste in their relationship. They prepared for the birth of their son (Jesus); they did as they were asked by the angel; and they determined to help Jesus become the person he would be: Prophet, Teacher, and Savior of the world.

Almost all of us want Christmas to be special, yet we know it is just another day on the calendar. It is a special birthday, to be sure, as many of us mark and celebrate the birth of one we call “Son of God”.

Still, I wonder if we don’t lose a bit of our humanity as we try to “do” Christmas year after year.

God gave life to a woman who was old, dry, and barren; God placed a life into the care of a girl who was young, inexperienced, and untested. Both women were amazed and both thanked God for what he had done.

Maybe we need to realize that God is doing for us what we cannot ever do for ourselves. God gives light to those who walk in darkness, drink to those who thirst, and life to those who are untested and inexperienced, but willing to say “Yes” when God comes a calling.

Perhaps “yes” is all we really need to do in this, our world. Peace!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don't Quench the Spirit

Do not quench the Spirit … hold fast to what is good (and) abstain from every form of evil. 1st Thessalonians 5

The other day our neighbor came knocking on the door at about 8 pm. Since good news never comes knocking at the door at that hour – not even to sell something fabulous – we were concerned. Questions of “who is it” and “what do they want” and “should we answer the door” flashed through our minds (as did matters of personal safety), but the only way we could solve the puzzle would be to answer the door.

It turned out to be a neighbor coming to ask us to watch his house over the Thanksgiving weekend. He was a bit worried because another residence in the neighborhood had just been burglarized earlier (in broad daylight), and while he and his wife were taking all the precautions they could with lights, locks, timers, and other such what-nots, they were feeling a bit exposed and at risk in leaving for the holiday.

We knew the feeling well. A few years back our family returned home to find it had been ransacked. Fortunately, the culprits were caught red-handed by an alert police officer who happened to be driving by as they were walking out of the house with our daughter’s television. He was suspicious of the activity, stopped to investigate, and ended up giving chase to the fleeing felons and apprehending one of them.

All of our things were recovered, but our feeling of personal security has never fully recovered. We aren’t obsessive about it, but we are more cautious. Even a decade later, I leave the house and wonder what I will find upon returning home.

Worry, of course, is mostly counter-productive. As Jesus reminds us in the Bible, “who can add a minute to life or an inch to their height by worrying?” Science seems to confirm that intuition; excessive worry shortens life, and no amount of worrying will increase one’s stature. In fact, it has quite the opposite effect as people bow down beneath the weight and pressure of the stresses under which they find themselves.

Worry not only “quenches the Spirit,” it is contagious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t need to allow events to dictate how we respond to the world in which we live. That is easier said than done, I’ll admit. When we’re under pressure or under stress, it is very easy to “let blow” over matters that are, in and of themselves, insignificant.

St. Paul tells us to hold on tight to that which is good, and abstain from that which is evil. Some people don’t like that word (evil); it is prone to being misapplied to people, places, or things one might not like, but I think it is a good word when it is used properly.

See, I think of “evil” as the word “live” spelled backwards. In other words, there are things we do that promote life and joy, and there are things that don’t. The list of things that are evil is, in my opinion, a list of all that is destructive or counterproductive to life.

That list would include things like stealing, lying, or hurting others in word or deed.

For example, I am told the average person tells a lie 87 times each day. What’s the most common lie people tell? “I’m fine.”

Perhaps we lie so often because we have learned that people don’t really want to know how we are; they might have to respond with empathy – a cup of water or dollop of grace – and that’s a burden too many (we find) are unwilling to bear; so we succumb to “evil” and lie to hide our shame and bury our pain.

However, Paul encourages us to hold fast to that which is good. Hold fast to that which gives life, promotes peace, and creates joy. What exactly is that “good” to which we should hold fast?

Letting go; that’s what we should hang on to.

Worries will consume us, but letting go allows one the freedom to be of service to fellow travelers. Letting go allows one to be useful, to stand tall, and to discover the good (and less worrisome) things in this, our world. Embrace the good and be at peace; that’s the word!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I will listen … for (God) is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Psalm 85

I surrender!

Christmas is here. Not the 25th, obviously, but the season.

We had a pleasant weekend following Thanksgiving, so I took the opportunity to hang the outdoor decorations – lights, garland, and wreath – and make the house indoors and out as festive as possible. Living in the Seattle area, one must strike while the iron is hot or, in this case, when the weather is dry.

This is a big change for me, because I hail from a church tradition that identifies the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas as “Advent” (not “Christmas”).

Advent is a season of watching, waiting, and preparing for the promised birth of the savior. It is only four short weeks – one month – which isn’t long time-wise when you consider the nine months Mary was actually pregnant, or the thirteen centuries between God’s promise to Abraham and the delivery in Bethlehem. But …

… waiting is too much for many of us. Many hustled and bustled on the Black Friday weekend, enduring crowds, thugs, and consumers armed with pepper-spray. Many more hit the internet on Cyber Monday, with frenzied fingers flying to seize upon every deal one could find. It’s all madness, you know.

I sit here in my living room, laptop comfortably resting on my lap, and I gaze upon the nativity set sitting upon the fireplace mantle.

The Magi are posed (although they aren’t due until January 6th if we follow the script); the donkey and camel have seemingly stopped for the night, seeking rest and perhaps a bit of hay; the shepherd stands guard over his flock, restless and alert in the eerie silence of the moment; and Mary and Joseph watch over an empty manger, awaiting the fullness of time when the Babe will finally make his appearance.

I find serenity for my soul as I look upon the nativity sitting neatly on the mantle. There is no madness; there is no chaos; there is no rush to find the latest and greatest, nor is there a need to find the perfect gift. Instead, there is peace and tranquility.

It helps that those figures are statues which, by nature, don’t do a lot anyway, but it’s a setting I need to help maintain some semblance of sanity in a world gone wild.

The world screams “Christmas is coming” at the top of its lungs; minstrels are reporting that grandma has gotten run over by reindeer; Frank, Bing, and Perry are doing their crooning best to get us all misty-eyed for the season; and the Biebs has got all the tweeners in North America craving for a piece of whatever he has to give. Is there any word other than “insanity” we can use for the season? I think not.

It has almost gotten me beaten down to a sadder lump of clay than one normally finds me to be; I am weary of this plastic cheery; and the nog has got me in a bog. What am I to do?

“The Lord is speaking Peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.”

The watchword is “Peace.” Peace, as one knows, isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.

God did not bring Jesus into the world to dispense chocolates, distribute i-Shackles, or improve the bottom line for the world’s retailers.

No, he came into the world to heal the broken, to restore the shattered, and to put an end to deeds of darkness.

I like to think of Advent as a Time Out called by God so we can pause and get our act together. It is a time to ask: What would our lives look like if we – like the shepherd – kept watch over those we love - faithfully? Or if we – like the magi – were to simply make our way to worship the One who’s only desire is to dwell in our hearts forever?

The trimmings and trappings of Christmas are up at our house, but what I yearn for is to be at peace with the season and with my God. What do YOU yearn for this week?

May we all turn to God, and be at Peace in this, our world!