God’s Welcome Sign, For All the World’s People

Remember how back in 1999 fears spread over the Y2K bug. The bug really wasn’t a computer bug, the way we think of them today. Instead it was a problem with the design of both the hardware and software of older computers, which didn’t allow for the changing over from the year 1999 to the year 2000. It was built into major computer systems when the year 2000 seemed a distant time and place. Only a few recognized the problem it would one day be. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the actual concern did not become widely known, until the new millennium was almost upon us. We worried and fretted over the problem. We wondered if there would be water and electricity come January 1, 2000. Fortunately, a warning issued decades before was finally heard. Around the world emergency fixes were made. Catastrophic failure of public utilities and telecommunications feared by many, did not materialize, except in a very few places.

We never know what a new year will bring us. Some of what we do know is that there will be trials in our lives. Among our circle of family and friends, there will be those who face enormous challenges. Others will confront heartache and sorrow. There will be moments when we climb the high mountains and revel in the accomplishment of long sought dreams. Along the journey, we may well find ourselves in turn, battered, bruised, bloodied, weary and worn by the stresses of life.

Brennan Manning, in his book, “Reflections for Ragamuffins” tells the story of a man who was reading the first chapter of the gospel of John where it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . The Word was made flesh and dealt among us.” As he pondered the passage it seemed to him that God was saying, “Yes, the Word was made flesh. I chose to enter your broken world and limp through life with you.” Manning goes on to say, “On that last day, when we arrive at the Great Mansion in the Sky, many of us will be bloodied, battered, bruised, and limping. But, by God and by Christ, there will be a light in the window and a ‘welcome home’ sign on the door.”

In the birth of Jesus, we witnessed God’s fresh start in our world . . . God coming to live among us, to show us how to live life with integrity and with power. In Jesus, God entered a weary, battered, bruised and limping world. Since Christ’s coming, this planet we live on has never quite been the same. Emmanuel – God with us, Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, wrapped in an infant named Jesus. One who chose to live among us, to share in our world and our trials . . . this one came to stay and walk with us each day. We call this gift grace. God’s gift, freely and abundantly available for all . . . God’s welcome sign, put out for all the worlds people. We may not know what the future will bring any of us. We do have this assurance though, whatever we face, we will not limp through this world alone.

There is Both Mystery and Miracle About Christmas

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called ‘Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:2,6 I have often found encouragement in these words of Isaiah. The longed for messiah will bring about a reversal of circumstance. Isaiah was a given a vision of a world made whole. The child born will not be an ordinary child, but one who will rule forever. In the birth of Christ our circumstances changed. Whenever we face trials, defeats, tragedies, depression or losses; when we yearn for something to give us hope, Isaiah’s words speak to our hearts.

The words of Isaiah have echoed through the centuries with that message. They speak to whatever darkness we face. “Those who dwelt in a land of darkness on them ; light has shined.” The promise is simply this: God will not let go of us. God has not and will not forget us. Where there are tears, one day they will all be wiped away. The burdened heart buried in cares will know joy. Whatever our outward circumstances might appear, despite all our mistakes, we are loved. Our foolishness and doubts, even the bitterness which eats at our soul cannot take God’s love away. God comes to be with us. God comes to lead us to life.

Ann Weems writes, “ I pray that the whole world might sit down together and share its bread and its wine. Some say there is no hope, but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools who never seem to give up on the scandalousness of our faith; that we are loved by God…that we can truly love one another. I no longer pray for peace: I pray for miracles.” From Advent’s Alleluia to Easter’s Morning Light

There is both mystery and miracle about Christmas that simply cannot be explained. Promises made centuries before are fulfilled in a child born in the obscure village of Bethlehem. Tonight we ponder the mystery of God’s coming among us. We celebrate the light brought into our world. We give thanks for the one who came as peace that we might become peace to one another.

Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days of Christmas Each Year

My all time favorite Sunday School Christmas program was called “365 Days of Christmas Each Year.” Every month of the year had its own song and its own blessing. The play was more complex than most plays. At Saturday’s practice the children were definitely not prepared for the big program twenty-four hours away. There were upset parents and upset children’s leaders. Anyone who had seen the disaster of Saturday’s rehearsal, could only imagine the worst for what would happen at Sunday’s performance.

Yet, on that Sunday, just about the time the music began to play and children started to sing, a transformation took place. While the children sang about each month of the year, one could see how people were being touched and surprised by grace. At one point the three and four-year-old class passed hearts through the congregation, singing “God Sent a Valentine Specially for You.” It was one of those serendipity moments. For, when one looked upon faces that had been strained or anxious, one saw a sudden turning to delight and joy. And God’s mystery of love was made new all over again.

Christmas was never meant for just a single day. God’s love is new every morning. Two thousand years ago a baby was born in Bethlehem that altered the scope of human history. Nations have risen and fallen. Worlds have been found and explored. Lands have been conquered and lost. Yet, through the centuries this constant promise has brought hope to humanity. God is among us. God made a decision to enter our world in Jesus the Christ to be with us. Whatever happens to you. Wherever you go God’s gift of love goes with you.

You may find yourself rushed this Christmas. There may be stresses and strains. Arguments may mar the season. Life might bring some bruises and hard choices. Today or tomorrow may be painful. Yet, the love revealed in Bethlehem will remain. Your life may be filled with problems. Your family may be struggling. Your heart may be troubled. There may be tears in your eyes today, but God’s love is constant. It will not end. God’s promises are forever. When God chose to enter this world in Jesus, it was to stay. So join in the angels singing, share in the joy of Christmas. For the Christ of Christmas is here to stay.

The Singing of Angels

BethlehemHoward Thurman is one of my favorite theologians and authors. I first encountered his writings during my seminary years when an anthology had just been published. Of all of his writings this piece has touched me most at Christmas.

The Singing of Angels

There must always remain in every person’s life
Some place for the singing of angels,
Some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and,
By an inherent prerogative,
Throws all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness,
Something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience
From drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in
One bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning . . . then passes.
The commonplace is shot through with new glory;
Old burdens become lighter;
Deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting.
A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives
We are trying to grow tall enough to wear.
Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life,
Despite all the harsh discords of life,
Life is saved by the singing of angels.

– by Howard Thurman from “Deep is the Hunger” 1951.

Do You Hear the Angels Song – “Be Not Afraid”

I’ve been needing to hear some angels singing. Some celestial visitors reminding me to “Fear not. Be not afraid.” December brings with it moments of reflection when we are reminded of the angel’s words. I’ve been walking through this Advent time with a mixture of events and reminders. From the awe inspiring St. Olaf Christmas Festival, to a musical at church, my grandsons’ school concert with its songs of peace, a granddaughter’s somewhat hokey Christmas play and my two young grandsons’ Sunday School program. Each spoke a part of the Christmas hope, reminding me of the songs of the angels. The angels of Christmas begin their assignments by addressing the fears of those they have been sent to. Mary is told, “Do not be afraid.” Joseph in a dream is called to trust, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Shepherds hear the words, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.”

It is difficult to every truly take in the whole message of Christmas. God’s gift of love born in Bethlehem’s stable forever challenges our understanding of God’s desire for humankind. God came to be among us. To live with us . . . to share in our lives, yours and mine. What causes God to love us with this love? What possible reason does God have, to enter our world?

Some days, when I look in the newspaper, I wonder about that. Certainly God was acutely aware that we needed help figuring out what to do with our lives and how to live with each other. There are times when I wonder if we have made any progress through these twenty centuries since Jesus’s birth. We make a mess of life quite easily. Our mistakes are legendary. Nations go to war without seeking peaceful solutions. And the “Prince of Peace,” is passed over, as one who is out of touch with the reality of our world. And so wars come, families are broken. Domestic abuse cripples families emotionally, spiritually, as well as physically. Life goes on as always . . . or does it?

The good news is that in spite of it all, God came. Not for a short season, but for all time. God came to dwell among us. For that very reason, lives can and do change. The message of Advent . . . this waiting time, is one of getting ready. Getting ready to hear the angel’s song, “Be not afraid.” Getting ready to let God into our lives. Getting ready to make the changes God would have us make. Getting ready for the adventure of faith, God is waiting for us to say “Yes” to.

Looking for Some Good News – After a Week of Collective Heartache

After a week of collective heartache, I have been looking for some good news. So, I was grateful when I learned today that former President Jimmy Carter’s cancer is no longer visible on any scans. I needed to hear something positive in the news after days of updates on last weeks shooting in San Bernardino, California. Aside from the constant question of just what was behind the attack, which is now labeled as Terrorist, I’ve been troubled on a very different level. Maybe if we weren’t in a presidential election cycle, politicians would be speaking with more care. I would hope they would speak with more wisdom. I don’t recall another time in my life when a group has been stigmatized the way the Muslim community is right now.

In the past year we have had a young white man go into a black church, in search of black people to kill. We have had a white man go into a Planned Parenthood Clinic and start shooting. Neither caused a collective bashing of all racist young white men nor of all fundamentalist Christians. Last week we had a Muslim couple who had been radicalized go to a Christmas Party that one of the shooters was to attend, and start killing. We immediately started the rhetoric about all Muslims being bad. At the same time we told ourselves these shootings have nothing to do with our easy access to guns. Fear causes us to lose our perspective. It causes us to forget our faith and our heritage as Christian people.

The problem with this kind of talk is that it stirs up hate . . . Hate that wasn’t present before. Just like the shooter in Charlestons’ Emanuel African Methodist Church was twisted as he listened to others blaming black people for society’s problems, our rhetoric about Muslims will cause another troubled mind to decide to take out his or her frustrations with the world, on the Muslim community. It has, in fact already happened. Back in February three Muslim college students were shot by a radicalized white male, except no one referred to him that way. We’ve used the term mental illness most often with our shooters.

It’s an easy way to avoid telling ourselves the truth. Last week it was a couple who were radicalized into ISIS supporters. Next week it will be another cause behind a shooting, or tomorrow, or the next day. The truth is that we make it far too easy for confused or troubled people to buy guns. We have way too many guns available for angry or distraught people. We make it easy for terrorists to get guns. We have guns enough to last for generations without making another one. We have turned our guns into gods and we have worshiped them instead of the living God.

For months I have been praying both for the world to come together to defeat ISIS and for sensible gun laws to get passed. I cannot resolve either of these issues by myself, but what I can do, is to pray and join my prayers with others who are also praying. The good news is that God is not done with the universe. God is not done with us. God still hovers over the waters of creation. God sent one to live among us, to show us the way to life. We call him Emmanuel, God with us. For this I give God thanks.

Against the Backdrop of Pain – Advent Waits

Against the backdrop of ISIS, a climate on the brink of environmental disaster, shootings in Paris, San Bernardino and Colorado Springs, Advent arrives. We hear again the voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:4-6

I’m reminded that Jesus was born into an anxious, fear-filled world. An occupying force ruled Jerusalem. The people of Israel walked on tiptoe, lest they upset the delicate balance of peace. One sign of insurrection would bring about the swift and brutal response of the Roman government. This was a world waiting for answers, hoping for a messiah. Here was a world seeking light that would pierce its darkness. So it is that Zachariah speaks with joy when his own son John was born, of the one who is to come. “And you child shall be called prophet of the Most High for you shall go before the Lord to prepare his ways . . . By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us – to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:76, 78-79

In our own dark moments, we too seek the one who leads to peace. We seek the one who quiets troubled souls, comforts the distressed and heals the disenfranchised. We seek the one who gives light in our darkness. In Advent, we wait for God’s answers. We wait in the assurance that God who holds the future is already preparing a way for each of us. So, as we wait, let us sing the carols, write our cards, decorate our homes, but let us also pray for peace and work for peace. Let us pray for healing among the nations and in our communities. Let us give of ourselves and our wealth to make life brighter for another. Let us prepare our hearts for the gifts of Christmas and the wonder of a Savior’s birth.