Sunday, December 28, 2014


When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
Jesus and Peter
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’ (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, ‘Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ So the rumour spread in the community that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. --John 21;9-24

It seems odd to read a post-Easter story so soon after the pre-birth and nativity stories of Jesus. With the feast of St. John, however, we look not at a chronology but rather selected scriptures that speak to, about, or by John whom we believe is the "Beloved Disciple."

It is a familiar story of Jesus cooking breakfast and the disciples joining him on the beach, bringing with them an exceptionally large quantity of fish. There is the dialog between Peter and Jesus as to whether Peter loves Jesus that is repeated three times, once for each of Peter's denials after Jesus' arrest. Jesus tells Peter after each affirmation to "Feed my sheep" or "Feed my lambs." Peter was to lead the disciples in the days to come and that he was to ensure the extended flock was cared for.

Then Jesus told him something unexpected, something beyond just taking care of Jesus' little flock. In the past, Peter had a choice in where he was to go but that would not be the case in the future. Jesus was preparing Peter for a life that was not going to be smooth sailing and would often be out of his control and would eventually lead to his death by martyrdom..

Jesus and Peter were walking away from the group at the fire when Peter noticed John following them and asked Jesus, "What about him?" Was it concern for John's fate or was it more like "If I'm going to face death, is he going to face the same thing?" Whichever Peter meant by his query, Jesus informed him that he had plans for John that Peter didn't need to know about. In short, "Pay attention to your own path and let John do the same for his."

When we were young we had plans, lots of plans, as to what we would do, where we would go, who we would be with, and the future looked bright with possibilities. Some of those hopes and dreams may have actually come true but probably many youthful plans did not. Still, we had control over much of our lives and that is what we ultimately wanted. As we age, we find that oftentimes we are less and less in control and that can be excruciatingly frustrating. We try to stay as active and vital as we were when we were in our younger years but joints get creaky, organs malfunction or become weakened, and the mind often seems like a sieve with too many holes. It is then that we often reach the point where we stop being able to go where we want to and have to either rely on someone else to help us or we wind up in a place we thought was just for old people. Then we realize we are the old people.

One thing about age, it gives you more time to think. That's not a bad thing; in fact, it can be a very good one. We care a little less about pleasing other people and, if we're wise, care more about pleasing God. We have to accept things that would have been unthinkable a few years or decades ago. We have a bit more time to think and pray, and more experience to offer as guidance for others we may encounter on the life journey. We can't walk their journey for them, but we can perhaps help make it a smoother one for them.

What if Peter had actually been told exactly what was to happen to him and likewise what John's life would be like? Would he have chosen death by martyrdom over imprisonment but dying of natural causes? Perhaps it's pure wisdom that Jesus was offering Peter--do what you yourself need to do today. Jesus has a plan for each person, and while we can be concerned about another, they have their own plan and journey.

I wonder -- what would it be like if we could get turn-by-turn directions to God on GPS? I wonder how it would change the journey.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 27, 2014.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Advent Day 25

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
  ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
  according to your word;
  for my eyes have seen your salvation,
  which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
  a light for revelation to the Gentiles
  and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
- Luke 2:22-38

While not usually part of the Christmas story, it seems fitting that we include two people who also recognized the child as the promised one of Israel. The kings, which we often conflate into the Christmas story have their own tale at Epiphany, but since Luke places this trip to the Jerusalem temple between 8-40 days after the birth, it seems to make Simeon and Anna important to the story.

Simeon had been visited by the Holy Spirit who had gifted him with a revelation that he would live to see the Messiah. It was this guidance that made him recognize the little family that appeared in the temple that day. His prayer which we now call the Nunc Dimittis was prayed for the first time but has been carried on by the church, usually at the evening service which also includes Mary’s Magnificat. Anna also joined in praising God for sending this redeemer. It must have been a bit of a stunner for Mary and Joseph who looked just like everybody else, no haloes or flights of angels overhead to announce that this was the miracle child. Still, it was true, as Simeon and Anna could attest.

We are so used to important people being announced by limousines, red carpets, lots of bling, flashing cameras, and/or microphones thrust in front of them to catch every possible word they might utter. What is amazing about the story of Anna and Simeon is that they recognized the importance of a small child being carried by a modest, unassuming couple who could have been anybody at all. Of course, Simeon had been on alert since the Spirit told him about the messiah and Anna happened along at a very opportune time. How many times, though, have we overlooked someone or something important simply because they didn’t fit our image or presupposition of what they would look or be like? Israel was waiting for a miracle in the form of a warrior king who would vanquish the Romans and return the country to the greatness of King David. Instead, they overlooked a very small child who would not fulfill those expectations but would change the world.

On Christmas Eve we go to church and hear the story of the birth of this miracle child. We recognize him in the manger but how about in the people around us? How about the people we pass on the street? Or the homeless person panhandling on the corner? The story of Jesus doesn’t end at the cradle. We need to be like Simeon and Anna, alert and watchful for the presence of the miracles around us, whether people or events. The Christmas season lasts twelve days, but that awareness and alertness can and should go on all year. The most unlikely person can be someone very important, if we but recognize it.

Advent is over, but we should continue to keep the lamps lit. We cannot let our wakefulness and expectation relax or our prayers for wisdom and guidance slacken. The king among us, and he might not look like a movie star or a great religious leader. Look for him always; he is there and visible to those who truly use the wisdom of the Spirit and the heart’s recognition.

Have a blessed and joyful Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent Day 24

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. – Luke 2:8-20

The darkness enfolded them like a cloak. Perhaps the fire had died down to embers and the only sounds to be heard were the occasional baa from a sheep or lamb. Had they looked up in the sky they could have seen billions of stars, far more than most of us could ever conceive of in our light- and dust-polluted atmosphere. It was quiet and peaceful, just the way a pastoral scene should be.

But it didn’t stay quiet for long. Suddenly the shepherds were terrified by bright figures lighting up the sky, and a voice telling them not to be afraid. I imagine it would be hard not to be afraid, and it would probably take some time before I would be able to put the fear aside and hear what the messenger had to say.

Over and over in the Bible people are told “Do not be afraid!” Usually it follows some divine appearance or presence and precedes a charge to do something out of the ordinary. Depending on what translation you use, “Do not be afraid” and phrases such as “Fear not” and “Do not fear” occur approximately 110 times. That’s a lot of telling people not to be scared of something.

Today’s climate of fear has much need of someone reassuring us “Do not be afraid.” Fear for our safety covers so many scenarios whether actual or projected has us in thrall, almost unable to distinguish where the real threats are and where we are being pushed to feel threatened. Driving through a strange neighborhood? Walking to our car in the parking lot? Having our kids go to school? Standing or walking next to someone wearing a hijab or speaking a foreign language? Heaven knows, just watching the nightly news is enough to make almost anyone want to go find a nice deserted island or safe bunker to hide in and to mistrust even your own family sometimes.

Many say the cure for fear is faith. Because you believe and try to live a Godly life doesn’t mean God has put an impenetrable umbrella over you to ward off any and all threats to personal health and safety. Sometimes stuff just happens. Where faith does its job is allowing us to move past the fear, to reach out beyond our comfort zone to people who also suffer from fear and oftentimes real situations that most of us would find almost impossible to understand much less cope with. We may not have an angel telling us “Do not be afraid,” but we could use a few voices reminding us of that. Then we must summon all our faith and move ahead.

Today might be a good day to see where we have fear, real or perceived, and how we can apply the “Do not be afraid” to our own lives, then offer that same message and support to others, whether we know them or not. Then we should remember that Jesus had to use that phrase and others like it a number of times to the disciples and the followers. The shepherds moved past their fear; now it’s our turn.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Advent Day 23

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. – Luke 2:1-7


The approach of Christmas usually means there’s a pageant at church featuring every child who can be coaxed or coerced into taking part, either in a major role like Mary or the angel Gabriel, a lesser but important part like the innkeeper or the shepherds, or even as a sheep with a little black nose and floppy ears. Like in the famous Peanuts Christmas special from so many years ago, the chaos and confusion always seems to come together (mostly, anyway) and the gospel story from Luke, recited by Linus or read by someone from the congregation, takes center stage. It is the story we come to hear, and the innocence of the children in their roles help us see things a bit differently each year..

Luke may not have been 100% solid on his historical facts, but the symbolism was clear. Jesus, as a descendant of David, had to be born in what was called “David’s city,” Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. Did Mary really have to ride a considerable distance on a donkey at nine months pregnant? Didn’t Joseph and Mary have relatives in Bethlehem with whom they could stay even if they had to be sort of shoehorned into an already crowded house? That was what families were for, wasn’t it?

And then there is the stable – probably the most private place in the entire household for a woman in labor. The straw would have absorbed the fluids and insulated the mother and babe from what could be a cold and somewhat dirty floor. The manger was much like a stationary cradle, a place to put a newborn where it was close to its mother but yet giving her space to sleep a bit after her ordeal. It was really a very practical solution, and it emphasized the humanness of this miraculous babe who had existed before the world was born and who himself was born just as we all are, frail, needy, and helpless.

All during Advent we have been making preparations for the 12 joyous days of Christmas that begins in just a few days. Choirs have rehearsed their anthems, children have practiced their parts for the pageant, priests and preachers have polished their sermons, all in the anticipation of the celebration to come. But it isn’t here yet. We are still facing an empty manger with a barely suppressed joyful expectation of the great event to come.

Still, we must keep watch. There is more to this time of year than making sure the silver is polished, the cakes and pies made, the presents wrapped and the cards sent. What if that manger had never been filled? What would our world be like? Where would we find brokenness? Where would we find healing? Where would we see hope?

Stay alert! Make sure the lamps are full and ready to flame. Make sure hearts are prepared as surely as our families, houses, and churches are. Think about the stable and all that it represents. Imagine what it would have been like had that manger remained simply a place for animals to be fed. Think of it – he was laid in a feeding trough for animals, but he would grow to feed all of us with his precious body and blood. That’s an epiphany for Advent.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Advent Day 22

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;
* and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25
There are always two sides to every story. We are certainly familiar with Mary’s but Joseph has a story too, a story of a man who desperately wanted to do the right thing but who isn’t sure just what that right thing was. Mary had returned from her three-month stay with her cousin Elizabeth but she was different, changed somehow. It must have been a horrible shock to him to learn that his virgin wife was already pregnant – and for certain it wasn’t his. What to do, what to do?
He would be perfectly within his rights to divorce her and find a new and unencumbered bride. He finally decided on divorce as the best option and, shortly after his decision was made, Joseph fell asleep. As happens more than occasionally, another and better answer came to him in a dream. God told him he was to continue on with Mary because she had been singled out for a special mission and he would have a part in it. The rest, as they say, is history.
Quite often when we are in a quandary and can’t seem to come to any conclusion or make any decision, we sort of “sleep on it,” as the saying goes. We are told that the brain keeps working while our bodies sleep, processing information, filing it, maybe even examining it and coming to some sort of resolution which will be presented to us in a dream and will influence our thinking when we awaken. Sometimes, though, it is more than just the brain staying busy; I have a feeling that when we are asleep, it could be the only time we are still enough for God to get a word in edgewise.
Not all dreams will be answers to our questions and quandaries, but they very well could be. There have been times when I’m sure God must have had a hand in because suddenly something had a clarity I couldn’t achieve with my hamster brain doing endless circles and getting nowhere. It’s quite a realization that sometimes just letting go of something is the surest way to get a handle on it, even if it means simply taking a nap.
Perhaps something to practice in the waning days of Advent is to add a small petition to the nightly prayers, asking God to show us what we need to see or understand as we sleep. Maybe it won’t be something life-altering or earth-shattering like Joseph’s dream, but maybe, just maybe, it could be important. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Advent Day 21

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.  – Luke 1:46-56

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.  – Luke 1:46-56
The song of Mary, the Magnificat, has traditionally been one of the great prayers of the church since about 500AD. Spoken, chanted, or sung as part of the evening prayers or vespers, it has been treasured by ordinary people and made into exquisite pieces of music by many of the world’s greatest composers of the past and present.
The Magnificat or Canticle of Mary as it is sometimes called, reminds us of the song of Hannah, who praised God for fulfilling her deepest longing for a child even though she was growing old and hope had almost died. It would take a miracle and Hannah asked for that miracle. Mary didn’t ask but rather was herself asked in part of another favorite prayer of the church, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women.”
Mary’s song glorifies God for what God is doing in her life. She wasn’t rich or famous but rather a simple, modest, obedient young woman who was betrothed but not yet married. As she was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth, Mary responded with her canticle. She acknowledged that she had been honored by God and that through her miraculously-conceived child, she herself would be considered blessed by generations to come. But then her song takes a different turn; it expresses thanksgiving on behalf of Israel for choosing them and protecting them, chastising the oppressors and exalting the poor and marginalized. Even though Israel was under the hand of the Romans, God was still with them.
No matter how bad things seem to be, God is still with us. Mary’s quiet confidence in God’s mercy and gift to the world through her has replaced any questioning or confusion she intitially might have felt. It would be for us too, if we opened ourselves to it. Perhaps this advent we could write our own Magnificat, praising God for God’s blessings to us and those around us. It might be a reminder of past blessings and an eye-opening exercise that could make room for awareness of God’s presence and care. “My soul blesses the Lord who has done great things for me…”
The icon of the Annunciation was written by Laura Fisher Smith and is greatly loved by the community of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Scottsdale, Arizona. Image used with permission.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on The Episcopal Café  Saturday, December 20, 2014 under the title "Magnificat."

Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Day 20

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” – Luke 1:39-45


In the old cowboy movies I used to watch as a child, if someone got in trouble, one of the things they did was to skedaddle, “Get outta Dodge,” as it were. It was to put some distance between them and the locale of something that probably was wrong or even criminal. Even today people look for a getaway when things get too strained or impossible to handle. The streets are full of such people.

We don’t know how far Elizabeth’s home was from Mary’s, but it seemed to be of some distance. Did Mary choose to leave home because of her unexplainable pregnancy or did her family send her away to protect her from what the neighbors might say until such time as the situation could settle down and everyone could see where they were and what they needed to do next. Mary probably traveled with a group since it would be massively unsafe as well as unwise for a single woman to travel alone much further from home than the town well or market. At any rate, she appears at Elizabeth’s front door, seemingly catching Elizabeth by surprise but not the unborn infant Elizabeth was carrying.

It seems so natural for women to seek the company and wisdom of other women when things are topsy-turvy. So often the life experiences and choices that one has made can help another through what seems incomprehensible and chaotic. It must have been a great comfort for Elizabeth and Mary to have each other to talk to, to help and be helped, and to share both their pregnancies and the knowledge that God was working through them no matter what.

What does it feel like to know that God is working through us? When good comes from it, when it glorifies God and not just us, and when a pregnant thought becomes a project that benefits all.

The best part is that we don’t necessarily have to get out of town to make it happen. Advent is a new beginning and what better way to celebrate it than to find something or someone to support in any way necessary and follow through on it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Advent Day 19

Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’*  The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born* will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her. – Luke 1:34-38
As if it weren’t enough to suddenly see someone unexpected as she was sitting in her home, quietly working or praying, the young woman known as Mary was given news that would confound anybody. To be told she was going to become pregnant yet not yet a wife must have been a moment that seemed a lifetime long. Even though she was betrothed, a pregnancy now could literally end her prospects for marriage and shame to her family. I wonder how long it was before she could draw a normal breath.
The news of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy may or may not have been a shock. Perhaps someone from Elizabeth’s home town had passed the word on to Mary’s family or perhaps this was the first any of them had heard of it. In any rate, the family would have counted it a miracle since both Elizabeth and Zechariah were not exactly young newlyweds. They would have rejoiced with Elizabeth that the shame of her barrenness was about to be erased, but what would they think if they found their own daughter and kin was suddenly in the same condition?
We often speak of Mary’s meekness in assenting to such an announcement. Being a good and righteous daughter, she would have been brought up to respect authority and to do what was required of her as a daughter of the house. This, though, was a different kind of authority, one she barely had time to evaluate for herself and certainly not one she had been brought up to expect. Being meek, however, does not mean being a doormat. A doormat has had all choice removed from them and their sole purpose is to obey any order given them without compunction or hesitation. Somehow I can’t see Mary as a doormat. A humble person, yes, but definitely not so meek as to be submissive because she felt she had no choice.
I think Mary was a person of rare courage. What convinced her that what this person was saying was true? What made her assent to such an unthinkable scenario? How was she going to manage the effects not only on herself and her body but the shame of her family and the sly looks and whispered words of her neighbors? Mary did say yes, and, even though acknowledging that she was a servant of the Lord, she took a gigantic leap of faith.
During Advent there probably won’t be many of us asked to take giant leaps of faith such as Mary did, but we aren’t called to be meek in accepting the jobs God has for us to do, whether we are aware of them or have yet to discover them.
Perhaps now is a good time to practice saying, “Here am I, a servant of the Lord” and let God take over.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Advent Day 18

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’* But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ – Luke 1:26-33
You’re sitting there, minding your own business, mending a shoe or darning a tear in a piece of clothing, when all of a sudden you find you are not alone. Suddenly there is a faintly glowing presence standing in front of you and you hear a voice greeting you as a favored person. Most of us would do the “Who, me?” routine but silently, probably very much like the young woman named Mary did when faced with that same situation.
The presence goes on to tell you that you shouldn’t be afraid. Really. In this day and time, it would be a wonder if a person didn’t pull out a gun and shoot first, asking questions later. After all, this was an unknown person in the house without consent and who represented a potential threat despite the pleasant words. If, perchance, you allowed them to deliver the message they were obviously sent to give, you might find yourself running the gamut of responses from “Are you kidding me?” to “What the ….” to “How am I supposed to do that?” In Mary’s case, the angel didn’t tell her how she was going to do it, only that she would do it and what the results would be.
We hear constantly about things we need to do to make the kingdom of God come to reality here and now but we are still stuck in the “Who, me?” “Are you kidding?” “How am I supposed to do that?” mode of thinking. We hear tales of individual people who have done great things, but we don’t really expect to do them ourselves. After all, we have a job to do, a standard of living to maintain, a place in the community to uphold, a family to raise and who has time to do more than that? We may go so far as to take two minutes to write a check and mail it to an organization we know of and that seems to have the same goals we’d like to see achieved, but that’s it.
There is a well-known painting of Jesus knocking on a door. He probably is truly doing just that, waiting for someone to answer so that he can say “Don’t be afraid; here’s what I need you to do.” It’s probably going to be more than clicking “Like” on Facebook or dashing off a check to a charity. I have to think, though, am I going to just leave Jesus standing there?
Advent is about opening doors and preparing for something special. I wonder – would I really want to tell Jesus I’m too busy? I don’t think so.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Advent Day 17

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2-7

The words of Isaiah are familiar parts of Advent. We hear them preached in church, we read them in our Daily Office, and we hear them on the radio and other media in the form of selections from Handel’s Messiah. This year it’s easier to understand the “…[P}eople who walked in darkness” because, despite sunlight and Christmas lights, the world seems so dark and fearful. Every day there are reports of more fighting, more shootings, more violence and it is so hard to try to meditate or try to practice peace with so many negative events and words flying around us.
Isaiah brought words of comfort. The kingdom of David would be restored, and a great king would rise to rule with wisdom and power, vanquishing all enemies, bringing prosperity and justice. Every king in the Hebrew Bible was supposed to be this kind of king, but many fell short. This one would not; he would be directed by God and respond with godliness himself.

We still expect our leaders to be like the king of whom Isaiah spoke. We expect so much and we are so disappointed and, yes, sometimes so angry when our expectations are not met. So many things are done in our name and, yes, even in God’s name, that do not truly reflect the very things we claim to stand for. We proclaim “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all” yet why is there need to have marches and protests and speeches calling attention to grave injustices in this same country? We need them because the voices of the prophets have not been heard, and the kings of industry and government have gone their own way.

We revere the Prince of Peace yet we so often do things contrary to his words and teachings. We looked for a messiah and yet chose to ignore him when he did not say or do things to suit us. We believe our Messiah has come, but we, like unfaithful stewards, have decided to look out for ourselves since the master is not here to keep an eye on us.

Perhaps it is time to do more than surface cleaning of houses, organizations, corporations, churches and governmental institutions. It is time for us to see a great light, and to walk in that light rather than darkness. The light is the light of the world for all people. This Advent, let us work to make it so.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent Day 16

You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” – Luke 1:14-17

Zechariah was in the sanctuary where he was joined by an angel with an astounding message that seemed to turn Zechariah’s world upside down. His barren wife, Elizabeth, was going to conceive and there would be a child, a son, for which they had longed for so many years. The angel even gave the child a name, John, and included a short job description of what he would do when he grew up.

Usually children became part of the family business as soon as they were able to perform even small tasks. By tradition, John would become a priest in the temple, but the angel said that God had other plans for him.

The Jews believed that the great prophet Elijah would return to herald the impending arrival of a messiah for whom they longed, a king who would defeat all enemies and bring the reign of God to the whole world. John was not going to be Elijah, but, infused with the Holy Spirit before his birth, he would have the power and spirit of Elijah and make the people ready for a messiah quite different from the expected.

I wonder how John would be received today? Would he be like one of those street-corner preachers or television evangelists, waving their well-worn Bibles in their hands as they shout for the people to repent and be saved? Would he ascend the lofty pulpits of some of the great churches and cathedrals to proclaim the messiah’s coming to bring freedom and peace? Would he sit in the living room of a house church or maybe even a table in a pub and speak of the kingdom of God that was coming? Would he be out among the homeless and destitute, wearing ragged jeans and a tattered shirt but offering comfort and hope? Where would we find him and would we really hear and respond to him?

As we prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ child, what voices are we hearing? Are they the voices of fear, anxiety, and anger, or are they voices of healing, wise counsel and hope? What voices are we presenting to the world in our own words and actions?

Maybe messages of hope, healing, and wisdom are like voices crying in the wilderness, a place of emptiness where it would not be easily heard, but if enough voices took up the message, it could ring out around the world.

Advent might be a good time to try it, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Advent Day 15

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  – Luke 1:5-15
Zechariah went up to Jerusalem to the Temple, as he did every 24 weeks. Aaron’s sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, provided twenty-four priestly descendants, one of whom was Abijah, head of the eighth group of priests to make their way to serve God. He left behind at home a wife, Elizabeth, herself a descendant of Aaron. They were righteous but for all their righteousness they were denied one thing they wanted – a child. During Zechariah’s turn at the Temple, he was visited by an angel who startled and terrified him, appearing in a place where he had expected to be alone with God. The angel gave him the news that he was going to be a father and that they would name the child John. But before giving him that announcement, the angel gave a standard assurance, “Don’t be afraid.”
Fear has become an almost daily occurrence, and it isn’t angelically caused. We absorb fear from news casts and programs that play to stereotypes. Even when we try to convince ourselves that we are somehow invulnerable or that we are projecting an image of alertness, ease and control, inside there is a little corner that admits that the façade is cosmetic only. Too often alertness must become hyperalertness, a feeling of being at ease shatters easily, and the sense of personal control may be taken by others to be a sign of defiance. It would be a good thing if we heard more messages of “Don’t be afraid” rather than “Let me see your ID” or “St0ries of global warming/racial inequality/homelessness are greatly exaggerated.”
We aren’t always offered a “Don’t be afraid” message when we are faced with something. How many times in the Bible do we hear that phrase, “Don’t be afraid”? Like “Here I am, Lord”, it is one that repeats over and over but do we really pay attention? There are countless people in this world who desperately need help but who have been shoved aside, verbally and physically, and made to feel totally worthless and therefore fearful of others. What would hearing “Don’t be afraid” coupled with some sort of help, maybe a dollar, a cup of water or hot coffee, a blanket, a bag of groceries, or a ride to a shelter or clinic or aid society mean to one of these people living on the margin?
Maybe the message we should hear this advent is “Don’t be afraid, get involved.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Advent Day 14

Reading from the commemoration of Lucy, Virgin and Martyr

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. -- John 1:9-13

Wintertime is a season of short days and long, cold nights. The evergreens show spots of color against the snow and the bare brown-black trunks and bare branches of the trees that not long ago were covered in gloriously colored leaves. Those days are gone, and it will be some time before the days grow longer, the sun warmer and the first bright green buds begin to show that the trees and bushes have come to life once again. But until then, we huddle inside as our ancestors did, around a fire in the fireplace or stove, if we happen to have one, but with electric lights forming an artificial daylight inside the houses.

We don't do well with darkness. It has always been a time of unease and even fear. Bad things seem to happen more often at night, and even as adults, some of us still look for the nightlights we had as children. Even with a tiny bit of light, the fear seemed to go away or at least become more manageable.

John's gospel describes a light coming into the world, enlightening it and all who are in it. Yet people didn't recognize the light, even though it had been present since before the world was made. The light had the power of a billion suns yet was contained in a small, newborn child just like every other newborn child, helpless and dependent on the care of others.
We look around us and surely, night by night, more white and colored lights appear, decorating eaves and roofs, doors and windows, even trees and fences. The night-world becomes a bit brighter in the midst of winter, and even one small candle in a window can be a beacon of hope. Somehow, they make the darkness and the cold more bearable.

What we need to remember is the light whose birth we spend Advent planning and waiting for. What we sometimes don't realize is that we ourselves can be candles, small ones, perhaps, but still potential lights in a window that will bring peace, hope and love to someone who struggles in the dark. We can't be The Light of which John spoke, but we can be pinpoints of light for a world in dire need.

Where can we shine our light today? It doesn't have to be a bonfire -- even a tea light or votive candle will push back the darkness.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 13,2014, under the title "True light was coming into the world."

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent Day 13

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
– John 1:1-8
“There was a man…whose name was John.” His name really wouldn’t have been John but rather Yochanan, “YHWH is gracious,” a name given to his father, Zechariah, by an angel but which would have been a perfect name for the long-desired child of a childless couple who had all but lost hope. John grew up to be what we would call a prophet but who called himself a messenger, one who would announce the impending arrival of an adult Jesus as the one coming to bring light to the world.
How odd that John would be the one to testify to a light that was coming yet had existed before the creation of light itself. The gospel writer, himself called John, was one whose chronicle was filled with signs and wonders rather than miracles and more mystical understandings rather than just facts or stories. John (the writer) didn’t provide a nativity story or even a genealogy – but in essence, his was the ultimate genealogy. His was the only genealogy who traced Jesus back to God and the world before light and time.
We frequently use the image of light and the light of the world when we refer to Jesus. Later in John’s gospel Jesus said, “…I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life. “ (8:12b-c). We hear it often in sermons and devotions but how often do we think of it in terms of what it could mean in our own lives?
We need light to see where to put our feet, particularly at night. But how often do we look for a light inside when the soul feels dark and clueless. We could use a man like John (the prophet) to remind us that there is light. The light of which he spoke was coming and could shine through any darkness. What a message of comfort and hope that can be to someone whose world seems impenetrable and featureless.
Ever seen the face of someone in love or who is totally involved in work or art that they are passionate about? There’s a light that shows in their face that is really hard to hide. That is the light of love, the kind that brightens the world not only for the beloved or those who are benefitting from the passion but those who witness it. Can you imagine the brightness of the love God has for us? How bright the love of Jesus has been and is? Wouldn’t the vision of light that bright and that strong attract us to the light itself?
There is one more verse to consider. “…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16b-c). When the light of Christ shines through you, it shows. Be a beacon for someone today who sorely needs a bit of light.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advent Day 12

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
  -  Mark 1:1-3

Every story has a beginning. Usually it sets the scene for what is to follow and, if the writer is adept, it hooks us and makes us want to read on. That’s one of the major things taught when someone begins writing classes or programs. Mark may not have had formal training as an author, but he had a story to tell and his opening certainly sets the stage for what is to follow.

Unlike Matthew and Luke and in common with John, Mark does not have a birth narrative. The stage is set, however, by introducing a prophecy from Isaiah that introduces a messenger and the main character whom he introduces to the world. John certainly was a voice crying in the wilderness; his clothes were rough and simple, and his diet was the product of living off the land. Undoubtedly he had been taught scripture and was open to being given a job that would daunt most people.

We have messengers today, people who see and understand what is going on around us, especially what is going wrong and needs to be corrected. Sometimes we listen to them, but most often we don’t, dismissing them as cranks and nay-sayers. Sometimes, like Martin Luther King Jr, they are killed because of their message and yet the message has been heard and the response to it grows stronger. At other times, though, the message is overtaken by a tidal wave of public opinion, denying that there is a problem or that those who are perceived to be or have the problem simply need to buck up, shut up and get on with life.

Who is a messenger in our world today? Look around; who is speaking out on a problem that many others wish or want to just be ignored or simply go away? What message are they trying to convey? Who will be helped if enough pay attention? Who will be hurt? We have many voices who seem to be crying in the wilderness.

During Advent we are invited to not only listen to the messages but to be messengers ourselves. The kingdom of God is the goal, a kingdom where there is no poverty, no marginalization, no oppression, no rank, power or privilege except being a child of God and carrying the message that all God’s children are loved and to be cared for. To believe in Jesus, we need to believe in the message he brought, one of peace, patience, and love of God. It does us no good to say we believe in Jesus if we don’t act to carry out his teachings and, in fact, become his messengers.

By taking a name from an Angel Tree, putting a dollar in a red kettle, bringing a toy or warm coat to a collection point is a good beginning. But how else can we carry the message, even without words? We must look for opportunities to be messengers to a world desperately hungry and needing the warmth we can bring. That is the gift we can bring to the manger and to the world.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent Day 11

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. – Malachi 3:1-6
As Christmas approaches, it is hard not to turn the pages of a newspaper or hear an advertisement on TV or radio for performances of Handel’s wonderful oratorio Messiah. Originally written in 1742 for performance around Easter, it has come to be an Advent standby, heard in large and small churches and concert halls. The first part is particularly suited to this time of year, and often scripture readings we read or hear in Advent start our minds hearing the performance of the particular piece which incorporates the phrase, verse or passage we are reading.
One of my particular favorites is the chorus “And he shall purify” which follows an aria usually sung by a bass that speaks of the messenger of God coming and acting like a refiner’s fire. Ores usually require great heat to melt them and separate the valuable metal from the impurities that become enmeshed with them. Malachi calls out the sons of the tribe of Levi for purification so that they can offer perfect sacrifices, but we can see a place for ourselves in that purification.
The passage lists four particular types of people who will be judged most particularly. These include those who are prevaricators who bear false witness, adulterers (which can be seen biblically as a property crime rather than merely a sexual one), those who do not respect, honor and obey God, and those who treat those who oppress the powerless: widows, orphans, workers paid substandard wages, and the aliens who live and work in the land. The privileges we take for granted mark us especially for the heat of those fires since our privilege often comes at someone else’s expense.
Repentance is one of the things we are encouraged to focus on during Advent. Where have we been oppressors, even unwittingly? Do we really believe in the refiner’s fire that Malachi brings to our attention or is it just part of a dynamic aria and chorus that we will hear once and then ignore again until this time next year?
Luckily for us, God is constant in God's love for us, even if that means we must undergo a bit of refining.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent Day 10

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. – Jeremiah 31:31-34

Covenants were important things. Again and again there are mentions of covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures, usually the covenants between God and individuals or groups where God promised certain things in return for obedience and reverence from those individuals or groups. God made a covenant with Abraham about making him a father of nations even though he had no legal heir. God again made a covenant with the Israelites in Egypt to lead them to the Promised Land in return for their obedience to the law. Again and again, though, God kept God’s part of the bargain while the people proved faithless. But God kept trying.
We make promises all the time, to ourselves, our loved ones, employers and coworkers, church and even to God. How many times have we been in trouble and promised God we’d never miss church again or pray more every day or even do more work for the poor and underprivileged but when the prayers are answered affirmatively, we tend to forget our promises.
During Advent we look at the promises that are fulfilled in the birth and ministry of Jesus. We see Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises for our redemption, a gift from God to us that we can accept or reject. The readings we do and hear, the hymns we sing, and the candles on the Advent wreath all are reminders that that God has made a covenant with us. It is then our job to live into that covenant as a sign of gratitude and obedience.
Advent can be a time to think back over promises we have made that perhaps we have not kept or have forgotten, whether by accident or by choice. Perhaps this is a good time to remember those promises, whether made personally or corporately, and find a way to at least in some way keep the promise or make some restitution for the breaking of it. Restitution doesn’t require fancy wrapping paper or big glittery bows, just a sincere heart and an acknowledgement

Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent Day 9

I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” Selah
  -- Psalm 89:1-4
We have been taught that the poems and laments we call the Psalms were written by David; some of them carry his name, but many do not. Some seem to have been designed to sing in worship while others are, quite frankly, individual petitions that we sometimes find hard to stomach. David did not originate the form; it was common in worship around the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East. Many of the Psalms may have been written at various times such as during or following the Babylonian Exile and were to remind the people of just why they were where they were and encourage the hope and trust that they would be redeemed to return home one day.
The Psalmist of this particular poem incorporates praise with thanksgiving. The praise is for God’s faithfulness and love that do not change while the thanksgiving is for the trust that God would hold to the covenant made with David and his descendants. Even though many of David’s descendants were not good or righteous kings, they were still David’s heirs and so those who carried their bloodline onward were considered heirs of that covenant.
Imagine that you are in a strange land, and you aren’t sure you will ever see your home again. Think what comfort it might bring you to hear someone remind you that God is still present, that the promises God has made will still be upheld and that this will never change. It might make you feel somewhat better, wouldn’t it?
Many don’t have to imagine being in a strange land, even if they are in their home country. Many are homeless and do not have a home to return to, or who are trapped by poverty in a place they really do not want to be but cannot escape. There are some in the strange land of hunger or illness, or locked in a place where violence is an everyday occurrence and fear is a constant companion. What are promises that don’t produce action? What of the promises made to our armed forces, promises that we will support and take care of them yet how many homeless, damaged veterans are there on our street corners? How about promises made to the Native Americans? How many other promises have we made and broken?
Advent reminds us that God keeps promises but also expects that we will do the same. That’s one reason there is so much emphasis in the Bible about caring for the widows and orphans, the marginalized and the alien resident in the land. How can we begin to right these broken promises?
The one who was born in a stable is counting on us.