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Messengers of Peace

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.  The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the Lord of heavenly forces.” Malachi 3:1 (CEB)

If we relate this passage from Malachi (3:1-4) to the other passage for this coming Sunday, December 6, we find similarities.  It sounds as if John the Baptist is the messenger described in Malachi.  Both are preparing the way of the Lord.  Both offer messages of warning and hope – hope for peace and renewal of the covenant with God.

Yet, the road to peace is often a challenging one.  In verses 2-3 of the Malachi passage, we read, “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.  He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver. He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.  They will belong to the Lord, presenting a righteous offering.” (C EB)

Hmmm.  I wonder how often I have gone through the refiner’s fire?  I wonder how many times I have been scrubbed with the cleaner’s soap?  I doubt that I can count them all, and in many ways, it seems like it’s a steady on-going process.  We have to have the rough edges cleaned away and all the “stuff” that keeps us from right relationship with God washed off throughout our lives.  It’s a constant process, and it can be painful.

Yet, I suspect we wouldn’t be able to recognize the peace that comes when we are through one more refining or washing if we didn’t go through it!  I once had a parishioner who told me that she had never had major losses in her life, and her life was calm and without a lot of problems.

I wondered what would happen to her when she began to have losses and problems.  Let’s face it, it’s hard to live in our world without them!  Life can bring us unexpected challenges that throw us off and try to bring us down.  It is the faith that we don’t go through that fire or soaping alone that helps us to keep on keeping on.

Another parishioner experienced the death of her mother, father, and two very close aunts within six months of each other.  She was in such grief, but she held it together, and when I asked her how she was doing, she told me that God was with her, giving her strength to keep on keeping on.

There is something about those experiences and knowing that we can go through them and come out on the other side still in one piece that brings us the peace of God – it’s, as the Bible says, “a peace that passes all human understanding.”  It’s a reminder of Jesus’ promise to “be with us to the end of the age.”  Through the power of the Holy Spirit and with the support and love and prayers of our families and friends in faith, we can keep on going.

So, this Advent, let us again remind ourselves that Emmanuel, “God-with-us” is truly that:  God is with us!  We don’t ever walk alone.  We can get through the tough times.  We can even have a sense of peace in the midst of the challenges knowing that “God has our back!”

How have you experienced God’s present with you (even if it’s in hindsight)?

In what ways can you grow in faith and hold onto the promises of God?

How will you share that Good News with others?

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Living in Tents

“We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God.  It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven.” (2 Corinthians 5:1 CEB)

I have mixed feelings about Paul’s words to the church in Corinth.  Part of me wants to think of this much more temporally than necessary.  As someone who has struggled with being overweight throughout my adult life, there is a certain amount of reassurance in thinking that this body is temporary, and if it is “torn down” I’ll have a new body in heaven.  Of course, that doesn’t make me anxious to get to heaven any faster since I feel like I still have a lot left to live here on this earth!

Yet, the other part of me knows that this body is God’s gift to me, and I need to be a good steward of it by eating healthy, getting exercise, and living so that I honor it.  I have probably lost a thousand pounds over the course of my life so far, and each time I would put the weight back on and then some.  Fortunately, at this point in my life, I’m keeping the last batch of weight off fairly well, and even though I still have some to lose, I’m feeling pretty good about the maintenance.

I realize that my thoughts usually go to my weight when it comes to taking care of “my tent” but I think Paul’s letter is far more than just being healthy; in fact, it’s way beyond that.  When we read the passages around this particular one, we find reassurance of God’s presence and grace.  We find a reminder that we are raised with Christ into life, both in the present as well as in the future.  We find a reminder that we aren’t alone on this earthly journey, that God is with us in many different aspects of our lives and has sent companions to be with us on the journey.

We don’t have to be depressed or oppressed in spirit because “God has our back”!  I remember telling the children on the Sunday after the terrorist attacks in the U.S. that we as adults would do all that we can to protect them.  We can’t be everywhere, but we would work to try to keep them safe.  But no matter what happens to us physically, God has our souls, and no one can take that away from us.  God is with them in EVERYTHING, and we will be with God through eternity.

It’s hard for us even as adults to understand that, but I believe the message that Paul gives us through this letter is a reminder that we really are covered by God’s loving arms.  No matter what happens to us, whether illness, accidents, violence, physical challenges, or whatever it is, God really does “have our back.”  The more we practice believing that, the more we will be able to live it.

When have you recognized God’s presence during times of challenge?

How can you keep claiming and remembering that God’s presence is ALWAYS there?

In what ways will you practice your faith so that others can see that assurance and comfort in you?

Silence

Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”  Mark 16:8 (NRSV)

Mark’s version of the resurrection in Chapter 16, verses 1-8, has always fascinated me.  I mean, think about it!  Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome head to the tomb, trying to figure out how they will roll away the huge stone that covers the place where Jesus was buried.  Their intentions were to give him a proper anointing since they didn’t have time to do it after his body was taken down from the cross (the Sabbath was almost upon them, and they would not have been able to do anything that seemed like “work” on the Sabbath).

So, when they arrive at the tomb, they discover that the stone is already rolled away, and there is some ethereal being there telling them that Jesus has been raised from the dead.  (Notice that the angel didn’t say, “Weren’t you listening to him when he was telling you all this?”)  They are instructed to go tell Peter and the others that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee and will meet them there.

Who could really blame the women for being terrified.  This is not an ordinary event!  They NEVER would have expected to find Jesus gone and to be told that he was raised from the dead.  We might think that this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but people in Biblical days weren’t really all that different from us, in fact, in some ways they were far more superstitious because they didn’t have the scientific explanations for everything like we do.  Someone being raised from the dead was NOT a common event!

What fascinates me the most is that the writer of Mark left the gospel with this “Gone With the Wind” type of ending.  We are left hanging, wondering what really happened.  Obviously, they told someone because the writer would not have written the story!  So, what was the intention behind such a “cliff hanger?” I can only guess and reflect on what others have written.

Maybe the writer is telling us that the story isn’t over but that it has only begun.  In “Gone With the Wind,” Scarlett weeps on the steps of her great mansion as Rhett Butler walks out of her life.  Then, gradually she raises her head and delivers that memorable line about getting him back tomorrow.  Her story wasn’t over but continuing.  It wasn’t too late after all!  She would find a way to bring back the man she loved.

Jesus was raised from the dead.  It’s only the beginning.  We don’t have to hide or worry or feel abandoned because he is alive, and we have been commissioned to carry on his work.  We are the ones who manifest Christ to the world as we continue the story of God’s kingdom here on earth.  All is not lost; there is hope; there is promise; there is life.

May you have a blessed Easter as we live in this world as and “Easter people.”

Merry and Blessed Christmas!

God so loved the world . . .”  (John 3:16a)

God loved the world in this way:  God took on flesh to become one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus lived our lives, died our death, and rose to save us from sin and death.  I’m writing this on Christmas Day and reflecting on the world that God loves.

There is plenty of bad news, and I don’t even need to list it for anyone to know what we are bombarded with in the media every day – throughout the day.  What is the GOOD news?

For me, it’s the spirit of generosity that we see at Christmas, and not only at Christmas, but all year long.  It’s the caring and love that people show to others, even complete strangers.  It’s the baskets full of food donations at the two churches I serve.  Every Sunday as part of their offering, people bring in some non-perishable item that is taken to the nearby food pantry.  It’s the ways in which people stop to help someone else without expecting anything in return.

Christ is still in this world that God loves so much.  Christ still works through those of us who believe his teachings and seek peace, love, joy, and offer hope even when the situation seems hopeless.  So, in spite of the horrible things that are going on in some parts of our world, Christ is still at work.  Our job is to try to make a difference, to be peacemakers, to give a helping hand, and to offer the love of Christ to each other and others.

Merry Christmas!

A Different Kind of Heartburn

“They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’  That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and the round the eleven and their companions gathered together.”  Luke 24:32-33 (NRSV)

Two people walked home to Emmaus which is a short distance from Jerusalem.  They talked about what had happened to Jesus who had been put to death on a cross.  They talked about their disappointment because they thought he was the one who was going to save Israel and restore the nation to its own people.  When a stranger appeared on the road, they all walked together, talking about these events, even though Jesus acted as if he didn’t know about it.

When Jesus spoke, they had the same burning in their hearts as they had before he died, but it didn’t dawn on them that it was really Jesus; after all, he had died on the cross and been buried.  Logically, they never expected him to be alive.  As they approached their house, he acted as if he was going to continue on, so they encouraged him to come into the house and have a meal with them – typical hospitality in those days.

Somehow Jesus took the bread to bless it, and it was at that moment that they realized who it was, and he was gone.  They had a glimpse of the risen Christ, and they dropped everything as they hurried back to Jerusalem to share their amazing and wonderful news with the disciples.  Their hearts burned within them.  A good kind of “heartburn!”

As I’ve pondered my mother’s death since the end of February, I have wondered why my grieving wasn’t more intense.  In fact, I mentioned it to my husband and then later to my grief counselor.  It seemed as if I should be crying more or something, but what I felt most was joy for her, even in the midst of my own loss.  This Easter season has been poignant for me as I deal with Mom’s physical absence and my relief that she is no longer tied to her physical body.  I don’t wish her back in the state she was in with Alzheimer’s Disease, and yet, there is a large empty space in my heart because I miss her.

I told my dad that I was homesick for the first time in forty-one years since I left the Midwest and moved to the East Coast.  He paused and said quietly, “It’s because of Mom.”  I knew that, and yet at the same time, I believe she had a joyous homecoming in Heaven.  I can’t be sad for her gain, even though I’m sad for my loss.

This past Sunday, the choir at one of the churches I serve sang an Easter song about the power of the cross and how it sets us free.  I struggled through it because I truly am happy that Mom has been set free, but it also reminded me of my own loss.  My heart is warmed and overflows with gratitude at the hope we have in the resurrected Christ and the promise of life with him forever.  My prayer is that others will come to that place of faith where their hearts burn within them as they recognize the risen Christ with them.  Amen.

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!

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!

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