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Archive for December, 2013

Reality

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.”  Matthew 2:14 (NRSV)

We have barely finished the glitter, partying, gift exchanges, joyful celebrations, time with family, people on vacation (or at least a day off), and then we go to church to hear this story of the realities of life.  What a come-down!  Mary and Joseph had been visited by a bunch of people including wise men from the East who gave them gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh – precious and expensive gifts – gifts that would probably have to support them in their quick departure from Israel to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod.  Talk about a rude awakening!

Yet, as I’ve read through commentaries this week and realized that I would normally be on vacation this week after Christmas (not this year), I realize that I have left this passage for others to grapple with as they filled in for me in the pulpit.  Maybe I can even admit to being relieved that I didn’t have to deal with the passage, after all, I admit to being a romantic who loves happy endings.  But maybe that’s unrealistic.

Life is hard work, and living as a follower of Jesus, the Christ, adds a big challenge to that work.  Let’s face it:  the difficulties we face in life often far outweigh the celebrations.  Bummer.  It’s like being reminded that there is an emotional and spiritual sort of CRASH when we come off a retreat or vacation time – we have to return to the regular, ordinariness of our lives, and the reality of it hits us as we face the return to work or school or job hunting or balancing the checkbook or dealing with relationship issues or health issues. 

We fool ourselves if we think that the nativity scenarios we have created at Christmas are romantic.  I mean, really, look at the story in Luke.  Mary and Joseph had to travel because of a census that was meant to increase taxes paid to the Roman government.  They were poor and had very little.  Then, when they arrived in Bethlehem, they ended up in a stable – a crude cave with a bunch of smelly animals where the conditions for giving birth to a baby would send our doctors and nurses reeling.

After the birth a bunch of “low-life’s” showed up – Shepherds of all people – who were despised and rejected because they were unclean and didn’t honor the Sabbath (how could they – the sheep didn’t take a day off!).  And then eventually, a few years later, according to Matthew, these three wise men arrived to honor the child.  Aha!  Maybe that was the turning point!

Alas, this was not the positive turning point we would want in our romantic setting.  Instead, the wise men tricked the wicked and murderous King Herod who had even murdered one of his wives and two of his sons for fear of losing his throne.  When he realized that the wise men had tricked him, he sent his soldiers to slaughter the boys two years old and under in the region around Bethlehem, thinking he would rid himself of this “newborn king” who would surely claim his throne.

But God was ahead of Herod.  In a dream, God told Joseph to take Mary and Jesus and go to Egypt where they would be refugees, but safe.  That is what Joseph did, after all, Jesus had a much more powerful mission to accomplish.  The realities of life are that we aren’t going to always have an easy journey; there will be twists and turns that take us different directions and change our lives forever.

One reality brings us the happy ending.  Through it all God is with us.  God sends human families and friends to support and care for us.  God sends us on our journeys with blessings and accompanying angels.  Human beings may make life miserable, threaten us, be really nasty to us, but God is in the midst of it, giving us strength to keep moving ahead.  We may become ill or have a loved one die, but we are not alone in the journey of grief, pain, loss, and healing.  God is with us in Emmanuel, the Wounded One who understands our life, knows our pain and hurts, walks with us even to death.

In the television show, “Touched By An Angel,” someone who died would always be accompanied by Andrew, the angel of death.  He was not one to be feared, but a companion on the journey who was sent by God to help us cross over to the new life – the life made possible because of the One who was born into a humble home and who opened the doors so that all people could know God’s love and grace.  That is a reality that many miss or don’t want to believe because they can’t SEE it.

Maybe they are just too stuck in life’s realities to really look or comprehend that Emmanuel, God-with-us, is right here in our midst.  God can work through others to touch our lives and bring us to a new place of joy and peace, even in the midst of the rankest realities.  That is always my belief – my hope – my trust.  In the midst of Christmas, the message is of God’s love and strength and guidance for us.  Thanks be to God!

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Blue Christmas

Have you ever been in the middle of a shopping mall or crowded store and felt totally alone?  Have you struggled through the season of Advent and Christmas thinking that you are supposed to be joyful yet feeling down and depressed and sad?  If so, you aren’t alone.

There are churches all over the country who recognize that the Advent/Christmas season is, for many people, a struggle – a dark time in their lives, and they dread the bright lights, happy wishes, brightly wrapped packages, and all the things that go with it.  Last week, I told my husband that I was melancholy every Christmas and wondered out loud if it’s because I haven’t spent Christmas with my family of origin since 1973.

He goes through the same feelings every year for a variety of reasons. His mother died the week of Christmas; his grandfather died on New Year’s day, and after his divorces he wasn’t able to spend Christmas Day with his children.  The joy of decorating and celebrating gradually disappeared.

For many who have spent Christmas alone, they understand the feeling of “blue Christmas.”  It’s not just a song made popular by Elvis Presley.  So the Blue Christmas services that are offered on the Winter Solstice are intended to acknowledge these struggles and feelings, but even more than that, they offer a sense of the real purpose of remembering Jesus’ birth.  It’s not about the presents or the lights or the parties; rather, it’s about the hope that Jesus brings because God chose to come to earth as a human being, born into our world and relating to us on our “turf.”

This particular Christmas season is a struggle for my family since my mom who has Alzheimer’s Disease has been moved to a long term nursing facility.  We know this is one more step for her stepping into the presence of God, but leaving us.  We have been so fortunate to have her for so many years, and she has been a strong influence on our lives, teaching us values that we have carried into adulthood, as well as providing us with unconditional and uncomplaining love.  It has been hard to see her gradually fade away.  She’s not the mother and wife that we all knew.  Yet, deep down inside she knows we are “hers,” and there is still that connection of love.

Our Blue Christmas service will, once again, provide a place for me to deal with my ambivalence about celebrating Christmas and help me to focus on the real purpose of celebrating Jesus’ birth – the reminder of a Savior who has lived our lives, experienced our experiences, and understands our feelings.  There is hope in the yearly reminder of Jesus’ birth.  That is what we seek this time of year:  hope – there is always hope.  Maybe that’s also what the star brings us.  So, we seek a blessed Christmas for ourselves, and we wish everyone the hope and joy that Emmanuel – God-With-Us brings this time of year and all year long.  Merry and blessed Christmas!

Brood of Vipers: Who, Us?

“When [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.'”  (Matthew 3:7-8, NRSV)

One quality I like in a person is that they tell me where I stand and don’t try to play games with my mind.  Although, I’m really not into the nasty hurtful ways people approach me on certain things.  There are ways to tell someone something without being obnoxious about it.  I suspect John the Baptist might have fallen into the latter category.  He was pretty harsh with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Sure, there were some corrupt, arrogant, dishonest, scheming men (no women allowed) among them, but they weren’t ALL that way.

Maybe it’s just that, being a pastor, there is the knowledge that I am among church leaders, and I wonder if John would see me in the same way.  With all the scandals that show up about clergy misconduct in the media (and those that go on through the church grapevine), I don’t think clergy are exempt from being corrupt, arrogant, dishonest, or scheming (or at least painted that way).  However, I also don’t want us to all be cast into the same category with the idea that just because some are like that, then ALL of us are like that.

Maybe John is actually addressing the entire company of believers who are led by the Pharisees and Sadducees.  If we were to go hear him speak at the nearest lake wherever we lived, I wonder if the message we might hear from this eccentric, odd, in-your-face prophet for our time is that the Church (meaning all of us in the church) assume that we have a special place in God’s world and are privileged.  Maybe we pass judgment too quickly, act in ways that show hypocrisy, assume too much, neglect to bear fruit – oh, yeah!  Didn’t Jesus say something about bearing fruit?  Hmmm.

We miss the point if we become too important in our own minds, if we think we have the right to judge others, if we fail to be inclusive of others in our churches and in our world.  We have not only the responsibility, but also the opportunity to bring Christ to the world through our actions.  WE are the bearers of the message of God’s love, and it often is WE, the Church, who need to repent and turn our lives around again and again and again.  Faith and growing in discipleship is a process – for a lifetime.  No one arrives at heaven’s gate flawless, but we are made whole in Christ through the grace of God in our lives.  We can work toward wholeness in God’s love in our lives as long as we live. 

John’s message to us is that we need to be alert, watch for Christ’s presence, and we, too, are not worthy to carry his sandals.  However, through Jesus death and resurrection, we receive forgiveness, and in our baptism, we are charged with following Christ, to be his hands and feet in this world.  That’s a tall order.  Maybe there are times when we could be called a “brood of vipers,” but there are also a lot of times when we quietly do the work of Christ in the world.  So, even though there are times when John would be in our faces, I suspect that Jesus would simply say, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  May it be so.

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