January 2014 newsletter

Happy New Year!

Take a glance back and look ahead as you look at pictures and read the news.

January 2014 newsletter PDF

Is That All?

Isaiah 63: 7-9

I married into an Italian family.  It’s a feat that has required this Scandinavian to build stamina.  An Italian Christmas is a gluttonous affair that includes a full day of eating when you realize that the amazing assortment of food that you had been eating all day were just the warm-up.  When you join a family where everyone you meet is family, it’s a festival.  My badge of honor that acknowledges the survival of the Italian Christmas is the T-Shirt received by all of the brother-in-laws: Pray for Me, My Wife is Italian!  You are welcome to join me for an Italian Christmas, and you will understand what a badge of honor it is to earn this shirt.  The funny thing about sharing Christmas with my Italian Family is the family traditions.  While the preparation is extensive and the celebration hits its climax on Christmas Day, the only thing better than getting ready is putting everything away.  The build up is paced along the lines of the Advent calendar.  The crescendo of building to Christmas, the highlight of family and sharing in the four hour festive five course meal, yet the miracle in our house is the day after.  I haven’t yet finished my cup of coffee, and it is a mad dash of Olympic gold proportions with ornaments and tree parts flying back into the closet.  And the family is comparing notes on the phone about who wins the medal this year for closing this years chapter of Christmas.  It’s an annual tradition.  I laugh reminding my mother-in-law showing me last year how everything was already put away, as she walks me over to show the one exception– the little baby Jesus still lying in the manger and the nativity scene.  It’s that little moment of peace to pause and recognize that Christmas is a beginning of a journey, and that all is calm in Bethlehem.  We gathered around the cradle stand, I cracked a joke about how everyone else in the family is like our current health care where in the joy of a new birth…better not overstay the welcome…only 24 hours in this stable.  Calm, I join the rest of the family to settle in for the football game and next thing I know…baby Jesus is being put away for another year.  Checkout is at 10:00am for this stable, time to saddle up the donkey and start heading to Nazareth.  

Following worship today, we will saddle up our donkey and head to my parents house for Christmas part 2.  The Italian Christmas Extravaganza is just the opening band compared to my family.  My parents have 8 grandchildren, and seven of them are nine years old.   The Italian Christmas is practice for this next survival challenge.  A place where the manger is still up, but a nativity that is a Fisher Price Set that blares Away in  Manger, and by the 18th time in a row–the kids laughing as they perch the donkey atop the manger in place of the angel, all-the-while laughing how our the  Christmas carol selects another word for Donkey  eating with the Ox.  A gathering with nine nine-year-olds and I long for hiding with sweet baby-Jesus in the Christmas closet back at the Italian Fiesta. 

Another year of  opening presents trying to take turns with an attempt to instill some sort of emphasis on the giving rather than the receiving. 

It was around the dinner table our last Christmas gathering, my sister shares the story of her kids and her Christmas most embarrassing moment.  My sister carries the majority of the seven nine-year-olds with four of them being hers.  It really is a blessing after many years of wanting to children, God blessed them with quadruplets—and they are four healthy and beautiful children. Much to be thankful for.  But kids are kids, and we have all had moments that she shared from the Christmas when a dear friend brings gifts for each of the children, and upon opening the presents—the reply from all four was, “Is that all” while in the awkward pause “where’s the big gift?”  That kind of sums it up, Is that all?  All the anticipation, preparation, and we find ourselves hoping for something more?   That’s it?   

And here we are, the Sunday after Christmas with the finish line of 2013 in our sites.  We had a wonderful, joyous, and Spirit led Christmas Eve service.  I was so moved from a service of joyous song, a sanctuary that was filled, the perfection of God delivering an abundance of a White Christmas outside the windows while basking in the presence of God indoors by candlelight—yet five days later and we all have a story in there somewhere saying, “Is that all?”  

Our reading from Isaiah today is a text of the sentimental variety.  It makes for good Christmas reading as we begin winding down singing the carols with good cheer, goodwill, and a sense of peace on earth—that is if you isolate today’s reading from what is happening immediately before and after.  My preference today is to avoid the context…in fact, self admittedly, why I first chose Isaiah over our Matthew text.  In the glow of Christmas, a lot of hard family stuff going on—yet a wonderful Christmas—so I really did not want to preach a sermon on the killing of the innocents.  Nothing says Merry Christmas like a sermon on the killing of the innocents, let alone the hours needed to spend in the text to deliver a sermon.  No thank you, at least for this year. 

So as I glanced at the lectionary texts for the week, saw the Matthew text and quickly turned to check Isaiah, ahhh…a tidy cheerful text that includes gracious deeds, praiseworthy acts, mercy, steadfast love, savior, in love and pity—redeemed, God lifted and carried them…  ahh—Isaiah, I pick you. That’ll preach! 

And then I sit down to write—the immediate line before reads, “I trampled down peoples in my anger, I crushed them in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”  And immediately following, “But they rebelled and grieved his holy spirit; therefore he became their enemy; he himself fought against them.”  Shucks!  

And I enter back into the fray, the chaos of tree limbs flying back into the closet, seven nine-year-olds laughing about words for donkey, sweet baby Jesus being tucked away until next year…  and I remember not only the context of what happens before, and what happens after—but what is it hand. 

That our chaos is no different than the wonderful memories when I was nine and laughing to the same lyric about Ox and Ass feeding.  Our kids excitement about presents I too remember…  and I too remember the fondness of Christmas Eve services by candlelight, sharing a meal together around a feast, and those breakthrough moments of purpose—something bigger than me happening in God entering history as a child.

And now, as a parent and knowing how much it is to love a child…that what happens before, and after—that in all of this seeing how much God loves by entering. 

That in all of the chaos, as our text shares, may we “recount the gracious deeds of the Lord”…all that God has done,  “according to the abundance of steadfast love.”  For God said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”’ and God become their savior in all of their distress.”  It was no messenger or angel…no pastor, no elder, no deacon, no Bible Thumper, no missionary…”but it is God’s presence that saved them;  in God’s love and God’s pity God redeemed them;  God lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” 

While God is so much more, that God loves as a loving and nurturing parent:  God is with us—caring for us as a mother—as Mary carried a baby in her womb.  God protects us as a father protects a child. 

Long for sentimentality—good cheer and peace on earth—hidden in this is the exterior mask shielding that underneath the surface, much of life is hard.  That in the good times, and in the bad…that God is with us—even while we are living in exile.  And while in our exiles, God is present and helping us to grow and restore us in relationship. For this is why we have Christmas. 

In our moments when we find ourselves thinking, “Is that all?”  May this week call us to go deeper—that may our resolutions this coming year be more than dressing the exterior—more than losing inches—more than gym memberships—more than our own self-help…  but recognize that our help is in the Lord.  May we continue to go deeper in relationship through prayer, in reading Scripture, in our compassion for one another—and the other.  In the name of a living, loving, and nurturing God.  Amen 

And He Appears!

Luke 2: 1-20

I am bringing you good news…to you is born this day…this will be a sign for you.  This pronouncement is good news

To bring you good news, to you born this day.  Jesus’ birth, and the proclamation of this significance, in the midst of all going in our lives…what does it mean to receive this gift in our own lives?

In our journeys—going to our families, our families visiting us—may we make room—As it was time—far away from home, Mary sought shelter.  Along with many others who traveled for the census—having traveled myself with someone with child—it is not as efficient.  There are more stops along the way.  And as they rode in to Bethlehem—coming home, the need to find shelter was great, but there was no room.  For Mary and Joseph, it didn’t go as planned.  I can imagine the conversation, ‘Joseph, didn’t you call ahead?’ 

Yet God’s plans are different than I am sure Mary and Joseph’s.  God’s plans are different than the plans of a census by Emperor Augustus.  God’s plans are different than those of a shepherd tending to flocks.  That in the journey, the inconveniences, that in our families, God enters.  That when all of our best intentions, when we check trip-advisor and read the reviews to find that the only place available is suitable for livestock. 

And this is the perfection of God entering.  That by appearing to shepherds, God enters bringing an invitation to the most unlikely.  By the inn-keeper making room in a stable, there is shelter in all of our mess.  That by God entering differently than how we would right the play, God enters triumphantly bringing light in the darkness.  I imagine the shepherds exhausted, working hard, and in the mundane the angels show up terrifying them.  And God says, do not be afraid.  God interrupts—bringing light.  God interrupts bringing new life, bringing good news, and rather than taking the finest spaces at the table, helps remind us to make room for everyone. 

In our lives, our work, our relationships, our families, our times alone, God enters proclaiming do not be afraid, I am bringing you good news of great joy.”  And in a manger, a bed of straw, in the gift of a baby child, God enters bringing the great gift of new birth and the miracle of life. 

And he appears, and the soul felt its worth.   

Ripeness of Time

Matt. 1:18    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.  19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 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.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23             “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

                        and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.”  24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

So often, the gift we need is so different than the gift we want.  Shoot, if we left it up to our own hearts desire—it would kind of look like my Facebook feed.  And my Facebook feed—well, it is need of being fed something different than its current eating habits.  We too often find our patterns—our truth statements through a one dimensional lens.  It is this, or that.  In this one dimensional world, truth is reduced to absolute certainty.  The kind of absolute certainty where we can be presented with the same evidence and derive two completely different outcomes.  And somehow we paint one side—ours as right, and therefore, that makes the other wrong.  My rightness is equally understood through another lens as wrongness. 

This rightness and wrongness this week included on the same day, a pastor who was defrocked for officiating his gay sons wedding on the same day that the patriarch of Duck Dynasty made some colorful remarks on the wrongness of homosexuality.  Meanwhile, this same day, New Mexico becomes the 17th state to approve same-gender marriage.  Think about this?  The approval of the pastor gets him kicked out of the church, the disapproval of a southern duck hunter gets him kicked out off A&E.  Perhaps they could switch roles, and move to New Mexico?  But could they get along? 

So, on the feed this week, one person who shares a different idea of rightness—she inserts her one dimensional view to another in her disagreement proclaiming…’You are an idiot.’  And this is our world—when we become removed from one another—when we live in the comments section.  When my rightness is more important than your worth.  That absent a connection to one another—the predominant voice feeding the response is fear. 

And then I hear your stories.  And I am welcomed into your homes.  The hand grips tighter on mine about the worry of a child.  The tears well when wondering how a friend is going to continue without family support.  The sanctuary goes quiet last week as people share stories about life’s abrupt changes.  That sometimes life brings us to a crossroads.  As if it were as simple as choosing between Albert Lea or St. Paul, but sometimes this Crossroads is a twelve road interchange with oncoming traffic. 

“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.”

Found-to be with child—from the Holy Spirit.  A child, from the Spirit—the giver of life.  Right here, a new beginning.  A do over.  That in our comments sections, or mistakes, our darkness, our worry, our real messiness—we have a do over.  And this do over brings hope. 

O come Emmanuel, giver of life.  By God entering in this way, through a poor, wandering woman—the mountains are lowered and the valleys are raised up.  There are no hierarchies.  That no matter how we measure the self worth of another—that no matter how worthy—we receive all of the benefits and can take none of the credit.

God enters—and there are great expectations.

Luke asks me again—only to be reminded by little Ray last night, Luke asks, “Dad, are we going to get the Christmas lights outside this year?”  And I have good intentions—but maybe tomorrow, it is cold…maybe tomorrow, I am busy.  Maybe tomorrow.  And there are no. lights. Outside.  It is dark outside.  Darkness.

 

I really want to create—manipulate—fabricate the perfect Christmas.   But it is dark outside.  But God is unconventional.  God enters and may we enter into the nativity scene.  By entering, we find confounded together, wonder and scandal.  It is quite the makings really of a good reality show.  Picture it. 

Mary with child—by the Holy Spirit.  But imagine sharing this with Joseph?  It’s a story that plays out on Maury Povich, “Who’s the daddy?”  She tries to explain…so this angel came, said do not be afraid, that I will bear a child—this new hope… 

And Joseph goes, ‘yeah, right?’  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

“Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  As a righteous man, a faithful man, this is unconventional.  During engagement, betrothal, for her to be pregnant is a violation of the law.  Righteous obedience would to disgrace—to shame, or worse. 

Try to imagine Joseph going to bed that night.  Imagine the distance separating the two, the thought of betrayal.  Imagine trying to fall asleep. When Joseph had gone to bed, resolved to leave quietly, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.”  For the third time this Advent, we hear the word—‘Do not be afraid.”  To Zechariah, to Mary, and now to Joseph… “Do not be afraid.”

God enters—do not be afraid.  When God enters, rather than our one dimensional—finite—black and white minds—God brings an alternative.  God brings another way. 

May this help shape us to live another way.  May God’s unconventional lead us to be unconventional.  May we be unconventional in how we approach the comments section.  Like Joseph, may we be unconventional in how we respond in our relationships. 

Joseph doesn’t have the script.  He is at a crossroads without a road map.  He is unable to see what the next 32 years will bring, but he hears the words “Do not be afraid.” And he moves forward faithfully with one step.  He has yet to hear the teachings from his own son about forgiveness.  He doesn’t know the tough path that leads from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, from manger to the tomb.  But he is faithful in little.  And to be faithful in little leads to faithful in much. 

That in our shortcomings, we are called to be faithful with little…to take the small steps towards Jerusalem. 

In God’s pronouncement to Mary and to Joseph of new birth—the word for birth is the same word for ‘Genesis.”  And together, birth and Genesis mean a new beginning.  May we trust Emmanuel to lead us.  To lead us in new birth, and to lead us forward. 

 

“How is your life bearing God’s fruit?” Leave a basket of markers nearby.

 

Meditation

“An angel of the Lord came to [Joseph] and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matt. 1:20, TNIV).

Each of our lives began with someone waiting: parents and family, at turns eager, impatient, joyful, frightened. And when the time was ripe, we arrived. This is how God, too, comes into our lives. Jesus, God-with-us, arrives just as we did, sharing in our lives from the very beginning.

Hold one of the stones. Let it warm up and settle into your hand. Feel its weight. Feel its weight both as a burden and as potential. Imagine that God’s presence, like this stone, is settling on you.

We are waiting for God’s arrival in the world and in our lives. And when the time is ripe, God’s work will bear fruit in us.[1]


[1] Reformed Worship, Erica Schemper, Sept. 2013 issue, Advent Prayer Stations. Advent Week 3.

Beginnings of a New Thing

Do you ever have moments where you find life is interrupted?  These interruptions are life.  We are surrounded by them.  Turn on the evening news, or open the newspaper?  Let us consider our own lives?  Brokenness.  Despite the vows, somewhere the marriage changed?  You visit the Doctor hoping for something definitive only to be sent home waiting for test results.  Will this job ever end?  What are some of the interruptions in our lives? 

There is much curiosity with today’s text.  Listen to what immediately precedes today’s reading. 

‘And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,and her soil into sulfur;her land shall become burning pitch.  Night and day it shall not be quenched;its smoke shall go up forever.

From generation to generation it shall lie waste;no one shall pass through it forever and ever.

But the hawk and the hedgehog shall possess it;the owl and the raven shall live in it.

He shall stretch the line of confusion over it,and the plummet of chaos over its nobles.  They shall name it No Kingdom There,and all its princes shall be nothing.  Thorns shall grow over its strongholds,nettles and thistles in its fortresses.  It shall be the haunt of jackals…”

                        

No Kingdom there…thorns, thistles, and jackles…  all of life becomes this—deserts and barren.  This is the warnings and judgment that the prophet Isaiah has been sharing from the beginning.  From the land of milk and honey, God’s promise, to this.  Life as it was has been interrupted. 

But today’s interruption is different.  It is out of place.  It doesn’t fit.  In the midst of despair, we find:

Is. 35:1                The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

                        the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

            like the crocus

2 it shall blossom abundantly,

                        and rejoice with joy and singing…

The God who cares about the desert, the barren places—is the same God that cares about us.  In our deserts—God shows up.  When all seems hopeless and desolate, we are not without hope.  The desert shall rejoice.    

And not to ignore how God enters… He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense…”  This is right after do not fear—vengeance, terrible recompense—and my knees tremble, but this vengeance, God’s interruption is to save.”   In the desert is life. 

Really, this is magnificent.  And this is Advent.  In one hand, we look back and remember God’s promise. If we squint, we look back and remember a garden.  And looking back, we then look forward and with hope, we find a new creation.  We find restoration.  That in this section of warnings…the times it seems God is so far away, God enters with a vengeance…to save.  And God’s saving purpose is joy. 

The desert shall rejoice.  It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.  And our reading today concludes, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return And the ransomed of the LORD shall come to Zion with singing, everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;  they shall obtain joy and gladness…”

Waiting places…God enters.  And there is joy. 

Where do you see the beginnings of God’s promises around you?  May we enter into a time of prayer discerning new beginnings.  Ushers will be handing out flowers that you may write on as an expression of your prayer for new beginnings that you can then bring forward to hang on the tree. 

“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom” (Isa. 35:1-2, TNIV).

The first sign of new life, a tiny green sprout, is cause for celebration in the spring. In and of itself, a sprout might be unimpressive, except that we know it’s a sign of what’s coming. With water and sunshine and time, even the tiniest seed grows. Then we can see and smell and touch everything that sprout was meant to be: the full plant in complete flower.

Waiting can be easier when we know what’s coming and what to expect. But knowing those things can also make waiting harder because we can get impatient. Or we can be caught by surprise: what finally appears is even more amazing that what we thought we knew was coming.

Look at the sprout. Now look at the full plant. Smell the flowers. Could you ever have expected this?

We are waiting for a new thing; from a sprout, the full flower. Maybe it will be even more than we expect.[1]

 


[1] Reformed Worship, Erica Schemper, Sept. 2013 issue, Advent Prayer Stations. Advent Week 3.

Prepare the Way: Advent Day 15

Isaiah 40:1-5

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”  How exactly does one prepare the way of the Lord?  At first glance, it appears to involve heavy machinery and a lot of earth moving expertise.  But when we look at how John the Baptist actually prepared the way, he “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3).

And how does that prepare the way?  As Isaiah said, “Your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).  By recognizing our sin for what it is and making a conscious decision to turn and head in the other direction, we begin to restore our relationship with the God that loves us.  Once we give God a foot in the door, the Holy Spirit enters and works within us to help identify further sin, and gives us the strength to oppose it.  In fact, by giving our life to Christ, we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and no longer a slave to sin (Romans 6:6).

During this Christmas season, I pray that those that do not know our lord and savior would give their life to Him, and that those who have already made that decision would humble themselves & ask Him to reveal any unconfessed sins in their lives.  Then may we turn from those sins to embrace the ways of the God who humbled himself by entering the world as an infant in a manger.  Amen.

The Magnificat: Advent Day 13

Luke 1: 39-56

Today’s reading is known as the Magnificat, or Mary’s Song.  This is a song of praise and a song of hope.  What does hope look like?  What does it look like for Mary?

As her song concludes:

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 forever.”

What does hope look like for us? What does hope look like for God?

If You Need a Job Done Right: Advent Day 12

Luke 1: 26-38

You can’t make this stuff up.  Ask yourself, “If I were to write the story?”  God could have entered however God wants.  I would picture nothing less than Zeus with lightning bolts, bulging muscles, the finest castle, and a jewel studded throne.  Having a soon to be teenager, I would enter as thirteen–because I would be God–and know everything.  At least this would be past the diaper stage.

But God is God–and God gets to write the story.  A story of incarnation conceived with a poor, socially and religiously compromised single mom.  Think about that in all of our social commentary on who we bequest as good enough.  In our discussions on good enough for adoption, for marriage, for church…  And God chooses Mary–far from perfect Mary.

The miracle is this imperfect, outcast, marginalized woman is the perfect choice.  This strong, hard working, independent, and faithful woman.  If you need a job done right…

It is through the angel Gabriel that God taps on her shoulder and says, “Greetings!  You are going to have a baby, you will name him Jesus (meaning to liberate, save).  He will be great, the Son of the Most High, and Son of God.

And Mary says, “Yes”.  She says, ‘Here I am.’

Thankfully God does things differently. How powerful is that!  Amen.

Do Not Be Afraid: Advent Day 11

Luke 1: 5-25

“Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard.”  May we not only wear this on our t-shirts, our bumpers, our foreheads, but may we internalize this message.  By internalizing, may we be transformed and radiate in a world that so greatly needs to hear, “Do not be afraid.”

One of the blessings already in my vocational journey of ministry is the witness of those who live these words.  A witness that strengthens me and all of those around when called to visit the hospital.  A witness at the time of great loss of a loved one.  A witness of an embrace that reminds me that the importance isn’t about coming up with the right words, but that it is about sharing in the presence of one another in our most difficult moments.    Is there an amount of time that would be enough to prepare one for some of the most difficult calls?  In those times we feel unprepared, Gabriel reminds us that God is enough.  God is present. “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard.”

“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.”  Isn’t this a beautiful picture?  So often our effort is so focused upon youth programs/camps/groups.  Focus can be be through a zoom lens that limits Sunday School for kids.  Meanwhile, we drop the kids off celebrating the hour of peace and quiet.  Gabriel instead begins with the parents. Let us start with turning the hearts of the parents to their children.  May we as parents participate and lead by example.  May our preparation, our turning, our praying, our reading scripture.  May our lives be representation of a living faith that lead by missional example.  And like Zechariah, when we screw it up–may we humbled in silence.

Something great is coming.  May we prepare as families and as communities for new birth, new possibilities, and deeper relationships.

Come to the Light: Advent Day 10

Isaiah 60: 1-5

Today’s text contrasts darkness and light.  This is our first text in what many refer to as “Third Isaiah.”  A central theme woven throughout this section is restoration.  For those displaced, this light is hope of a new dawn.

Where are you feeling displaced?  May this Advent provide hope in the waiting.  “Arise, shine; for your light has come.”  As we journey towards Bethlehem, may we open our eyes and look around, gather.  May our sons and daughters, and our church family see the radiance and may our hearts thrill and rejoice.  (And may a multitude of camels cover you–whatever your camels shall be).  Merry Christmas!