Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Always Advent

I am grateful for Advent, this week more than most, though this season has reminded me how important Advent is to my spiritual life and my experience of faith, probably more than any other season. Still, soon we will be celebrating the birth of our Lord Jesus. While this Sunday is still Advent, it does carry with it a foretaste of the Nativity, as Elizabeth and Mary rejoice in their pregnancies and in their hopes for what God will do in the world.

But I am reluctant to get to Christmas yet. Part of this blog comes from an article I sent out in our weekly newsletter today, the Olive Branch (online at Normally I’d write about the upcoming Christmas festivals in some way in the last newsletter before the Nativity. For obvious reasons, given what happened last week in Connecticut, I was, as I said, reluctant to go there. I wanted, and still want, to stay in Advent a little longer.

Advent is a season which speaks to the realities of this world in which we live and helps us navigate through the darkness. It points to the light, to the coming of Jesus into the world then, now, and in times to come, and that is a good thing. But Advent speaks to our hearts in a time when that coming often seems far too distant in either direction to have an impact, times when the darkness seems to be able to overcome the light. As we despair over the senseless deaths, are frustrated by our nation’s continuing unwillingness to join every single one of our fellow Western, developed nations in having real control of guns in this country and thereby enjoy their much-reduced rates of gun-related deaths, and are deeply saddened and grieving once more to face the mass death of children and teachers, Advent speaks to our hearts.

We had planned last Sunday’s worship well before the shootings at the elementary school, and didn’t change them. Everything was ready, the service folders were printed, and we knew that we’d be including these families and our nation in our intercessory prayers. I was gone from Thursday through Saturday, so my sermon was written on Wednesday, well before the shootings. Given that I had no time to re-write, I looked at my sermon and to my surprise I discovered that it was already addressing some of the pain I was feeling about the state of this broken world. The readings for Sunday were mostly about joy and rejoicing, but in the middle of that John the Baptist was calling in harsh words for repentance, saying the world was disastrously not ready for God’s coming. So, with only a couple additions, I left the sermon alone and preached it.

Here is the wonder of Advent, and in general of the gift the Church gives by walking us through the year. We had planned to come and worship God last Sunday, using the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, and singing hymns which reflected those readings, Advent hymns which we sing every year, and as I said, that is what we did. And yet, the gift of the Church, the gift of Advent to me, and I suspect to many who gathered Sunday, that what we sang and heard powerfully spoke to where we were.

We sang a plea that we see the coming of Jesus bring light to a world seemingly steeped in impenetrable darkness: “Our hope and expectation, O Jesus, now appear; arise, O Sun so longed for, o’er this benighted sphere” (ELW 244). We sang hope that our Lord indeed comes “the broken heart to bind, the bleeding soul to cure” (ELW 239). And we sang this promise: “In darkest night, his coming shall be, when all the world is despairing, the morning light so quiet and free, so warm and gentle and caring. Then shall the mute break forth in song, the lame shall leap in wonder, the weak be raised above the strong, and weapons be broken asunder” (ELW 242). Weapons be broken asunder, amen.

The readings called to joy but also spoke of the brokenness of a world longing for the coming of the Messiah. So though we also had prayers written and prayed by our assisting minister which spoke deeply to almighty God from our hearts, the whole liturgy for me was a call for the coming of God's healing in Jesus, God’s light in the darkness. I remember a similar experience after September 11, 2001, when in my parish at the time we gathered and simply prayed Compline, with the regular readings, hymns and prayers, and powerfully were given the precise and deeply important words we needed at that time.

This is the gift of Advent, that we can name our fears alongside our hopes, name our longing and desire for God’s grace and life in spite of the way the world looks, name our desperate need for God’s coming in light and healing. When we celebrate our Lord’s birth next week, we will begin to celebrate how God has come and is coming, how that light makes a difference even in a world where children are killed. Because we do believe that the coming of the Son of God into the world is the beginning of the restoration of all things.

For now, I’m not ready to go there, not just yet. For now, I’m grateful for all who gather with me in Advent waiting, watching, hoping. Grateful for honesty about the brokenness of the world and our need for healing from God which our worship helps us find. And most of all, grateful that we belong to a God whose promised coming then, now, and in the future is already bringing about the healing that this world needs, if only we watch for it, and are a part of it. Advent helps us do just that.

Amen, come, Lord Jesus, we pray. For now, that’s enough.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Humility before God

There is an arrogance in theologians and in theology which increasingly troubles me.  Theo-logos, word about God, is human speech and thought and song and life centered on the reality of God in the world.  But surely we should speak, sing, write, live such theo-logy with deep humility and awareness that we are not God, nor can we ever truly define or encompass the reality of God in this world, let alone the universe.

The strange thing, I suppose, is that I am called and ordained to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, and that first part means I am one who is constantly called to do theology, to speak of God.  I don't preach sermons and fill them with disclaimers or caveats.  At least most times I don't.  We who are baptized into Christ and shaped by the Scriptures, by worship, by our sisters and brothers in faith, believe that there are truths and realities God has revealed to the world in the person of Jesus, and we are called to proclaim these things to each other and to the world.  The very idea that God is incarnate among us in the person of Jesus and now continues that incarnation through the Holy Spirit in each one of us implies that each of us speaks on God's behalf, is an ambassador for God (for good or for ill) to the world.

I accept that.  I still preach.  I write.  I sing.  I think.  It's what we do as Christians, and what I do as a pastor in Christ's Church.

I just think that while we speak we might want to keep a deep humility about us.  I posted this on a friend's blog, but it's worth remembering the words of Oliver Cromwell (who could have used a modicum of humility himself) to the Presbyterians of Scotland in 1650:  "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."  Again, Cromwell might not have lived this, and it's likely it wasn't intended as a universal specific.  But I feel free to make it mine, and offer it to others here.  We might avoid future inquisitions, crusades, intifadas, cross-burnings, and other horrors including excluding people from our fellowship if we kept in mind that whatever we think about our theology, God ultimately will be God and will reach people and do what God wants to do, even if it doesn't fit our theology.

I think what I'm saying is that we Christians, like many other faiths, believe we have received a revelation from the God who made all things.  We Christians believe this God is fully known to us as Triune - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - which we have come to believe primarily because of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus.  We did not come up with this on our own, or so we claim, rather God found us, God sought us, God chose us (see Genesis 12 and following, John 15.)  Which means we are people who believe that the Logos of God, the Word of God for this world, became human flesh, one of us, and showed us the full truth about God, or at least the truth about God we need to know.  We can argue, we can postulate, we can try to discern.  We can write, sing, speak, live what we believe.  But ultimately only God can be God.

The challenge, I think, is that in faith, through the Church, in Word and Sacrament, with sisters and brothers helping, we learn to follow the Logos, not our own theology.  We learn to listen to God's continuing revelation together in the Spirit through all these means and gifts.  We pray together, read Scripture together, and listen together, and yes, sometimes speak. But always with this in mind: we might be wrong.  We might make mistakes about God's intention, God's nature.  In fact, as broken humans, nothing is more likely.  If we can keep that humility, then we can truly engage in listening to what God is actually saying and doing among us, even if it doesn't fit our labels and boxes.  That seems like a worthy goal of theology, in fact.  But, of course, I might be wrong.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where two or three are gathered in my name . . .

I read a thoughtful and gracious blog the other day which made me think once more about the gift of community Jesus gives us.  The blog was an open letter to author Anne Rice after she publicly left the church, though apparently she said she hadn't lost her faith.  The link is here, and it's well worth your time to read: .  This writer makes the point far more eloquently than I could that while the institution of the Church is flawed, human, sinful, and often causes pain not only to its members but to the world, we cannot "do the Jesus thing alone."  It is a paradox, but it is nonetheless true.

This is the mystery of the incarnation.  God-with-us, in the flesh, that is our proclamation.  However, that incarnation is not lived in one person, in an individual, but in the community the Son of God created, as flawed and broken as it is.  "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst," Jesus said in Matthew 18:20.  And in John 15 he says, "As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love."  This "you" is consistently plural.  This is a community request, a community promise, a creation of community abiding in the love of Jesus who abides in the love of the fullness of the Triune God.  This means that this is our mystery: the presence and love of Jesus lives in our midst when we are together, not when we are apart.  The life of the Incarnate God is lived in our midst, among us.  This is why our worship leaders face the assembly, not a Holy of Holies, when they lead prayer, because it is in the midst of the people that our Lord Jesus is present, incarnate still in the world.

I have not always thought this was a good idea of God's.  Trusting frail and often evil human beings to be the presence of God, the continuing incarnation in the body of Christ for the sake of the world, seems incredibly risky.  We do horrible things, and people like Anne Rice finally have enough and leave the community.  People are wounded and trampled on by the very Church Jesus created to heal and lift up.  Congregations split, denominations fight.  That denominations exist at all is a sign that we can't be trusted to be faithfully the body of Christ without messing it up.

But the triune God did not do this unaware of our sinfulness.  Jesus had ample evidence that we were flawed and untrustworthy throughout his ministry, just from his followers alone.  Their betrayals and actions of the days surrounding his crucifixion only cemented that awareness.  Yet, risen from the dead, Jesus still turned to these flawed, broken disciples, and called them together for breakfast, made them a community again.  The first thing he did after that breakfast was to send them out once more to be his body, his love, his grace in the world.

As Tevye would say, "Sounds crazy, no?"  It does, and sometimes it seems as if God should have thought of something different.  Yet it clearly is God's way to love the world, and so I have hope.  I have hope that if God knows what God is doing here, it will come out alright.  "My word will not come back to me empty but it shall accomplish that which I purpose," God says in Isaiah 55.  This plan will work, in us, through us, for the sake of the world and through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Where two or three are gathered, there is our Lord in our midst.  There is God in the world.  That's incredibly good news, indeed.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Silence is golden . . . but always?

After a spirited discussion at our pastors' text study this morning on the merits of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen (modern American composers of powerfully moving choral music and if you haven't heard them, hie thee to a store and get some CDs), I find myself thinking once again about the power of music to move me to prayer and into God's presence.

I am not someone who finds silence terribly helpful in my private devotions.  If I am reading the Bible and then trying to reflect on it a little, and pray, and listen for God, the silence often defeats me.  If it's early in the morning, I drift back into sleep.  If it's late evening, sometimes sleep also comes, but more frequently the thoughts of the day intrude like the thorns of Jesus' parable of the sower, tugging me away from my openness to the movement of the Spirit of God.

Silence in worship is different for me.  Many experiences of worship today involve precious little silence.  People constantly feel the need to interrupt silence with speech, or more music, or immediate movement to the next part of the liturgy.  In those times of worship where silence happens, then, it is a great source of peace and joy for me.  I am also part of a spiritual direction group which includes three other pastors and a director, and we have very long silent times as a part of our time together.  Those times are fruitful and good and are silences in which I frequently feel God's breath moving, hear God's voice.  If prayer is conversation with God, silence to listen to the voice of God in our hearts and lives is essential to prayer.

The challenge for me, clearly, is when I am alone.  The conversation this morning reminded me of something I've been considering for the past few months, and that is the power of music in opening my spirit to God.  When I listen to Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium," for example, or Maurice Durufle's "Ubi caritas," I am transported from daily cares and woes into a different world and find myself open to deep reflection and to insight from God.  I find a deep joy sometimes, sometimes sadness, sometimes exhilaration.  I could make a blog which only reflected on the latest piece of music to move my soul, and not run out of ideas for the rest of my life.

I am beginning to wonder what would happen if I brought music into my daily devotions intentionally.  As important as silence is to our lives in a world of cacophony and noise, music, at least the music that moves me, is the opposite of cacophony and noise.  Perhaps I need to listen to and understand my own life-long experience with music and recognize that if taking time with God on a daily basis is important, and if I'd really rather not sleep through it, it is possible that God's gift of music can replace the silent meditation.  J. S. Bach instead of the ticking of the clock?  It might be worth trying.

I'll let you know how it works out.  In the meantime, please get the final album made by the Dale Warland Singers, Lux Aurumque.  There was a wonderful story Lucy Pevensie read in the magician's book in C. S. Lewis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader which was subtitled "for the refreshment of the spirit," and which, upon reading, filled Lucy with joy and wonder and refreshment, filled her very soul.  This Warland CD is just such a gift for me.  I think I want to find out if there is a place for it and all the others in my prayer life as well.

Monday, August 2, 2010

On being full

I started this blog last spring, and after a few posts during Holy Week I let it sit idle.  A good friend of mine periodically asks whether I'll be posting again, and that nudging has been a good thing.  I think I've been struggling with the idea that it can be a little self-centered to think that others really want to listen in to another person's thoughts.  However, I find the few blogs I do read helpful in opening up ideas, asking questions, and generally making me think.  In some ways, these are dialogues in monologue (unless someone posts replies and makes it a true dialogue.)  And that's an interesting way of thinking and communicating.  It's definitely a  good thing for me to engage the thoughts and writing of others.

The title of this blog is "In the Center of All Things," and the explanation for that choice is over on the side.  And Sunday's sermon (I preached on the Ecclesiastes and Luke texts, with a little Colossians mixed in like a nice herb from the garden) reminded me of why I thought I might write here.  Because the focus on "emptiness" that the Teacher has, combined with Jesus' parable about a rich man who thought he had everything but in the end had nothing, led me once more to the realization that this is what I want to consider here.  What does it mean to be centered on God, to be unable to move from God's presence (which, like Psalm 139 can be read as a good thing or a scary thing), to recognize that at our heart, at our core, is the love of God Jesus has made known?  That's what I want to think about and explore, with anyone who might want to explore it with me.

I preached Sunday about gas gauges, and how I tend to push the limit on my little orange light which tells me to fill up.  And how it struck me that our lives are often the same, but without the warning light.  We can be running on empty and not know it, and we can be having priorities and choices which drain our spiritual, emotional, or physical tanks, and unlike being left on the side of the road with a gas can, our life consequences are harder to trace to their source, and harder to notice until they've been accumulating over a lot of time.  So cause and effect are harder to understand and see clearly.  And that means Jesus' warnings in Luke 12 are also harder to hear, because we might be unhappy, unsettled, uncomfortable, or in deeper difficulty still, but we often don't know why.

But I have found that living with the question "where is God in my life?" helps me pay better attention to whether I am empty or filled, and knowing God's love is mine helps me make better choices which also help my tanks get filled.  But I've also come to know and believe that the relationship God has made with me is never lived just with me - it is a relationship of God to God's people, and I am connected to all God's children around the world in a profound way.  And to the people God has placed in my life in a powerful way.  They become truth-tellers to me, standing in God's place, reminding me if I'm getting empty, helping me remember I am loved by God, and helping me as I seek to walk a path of faithful discipleship.

So I am grateful to all my fellow travelers who help me keep on the path, who fill me up in so many ways.  And I think I might start writing here again, in hopes that this monologue/dialogue will be helpful to others in their journeys.  It certainly will be to me in mine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

We must obey God . . .

In the wake of several friends posting on Dietrich Bonhoeffer last Friday, and preaching about the apostles in Acts 5 on Sunday, I find myself continuing to ponder obedience to God and how it shapes our lives.  There is a deep level of discomfort in this country regarding people who claim to act out of obedience to God.  Americans can tolerate a lot of passion from people, but passion about religion unsettles us.  And when terrorists use their faith in God, their desire to obey, to follow their faith's teachings, as rationale, that discomfort becomes set in stone.

But on Sunday in my preaching I asked what we are to do with the apostles in Acts 5, then.  Standing before the council of Jewish leaders only months after Jesus' resurrection, they say they must obey God rather than human authority.  Their confidence in the risen Jesus led them to stand without fear, firm in their conviction that they were called to preach Jesus to the world.  Even if they were killed for it.  Which many of them were.  Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (see my Holy Saturday blog), their faith in God led them to fearless behavior.

There is a deeper truth here which transcends our discomfort and must be addressed.  If in fact we believe in God, then God must have a say in how we live our lives.  And that means that our faith by necessity leads us to act in the world - politically, economically, socially, spiritually.  Obedience is not something we can opt out of.

So we are left with this question: can we learn to live lives of obedience to God which respect those with whom we disagree, but which also take seriously God's call to us to go out into the world and make a difference?  In our fear of religious fervor and passion, we can fall too far on the other side, the side of quietism and private faith.  What would it mean for us to live in the world with that witness of the apostles, "we must obey God and not human authority," not as something to be feared, but as a way of life which could bring life to the world?  Otherwise, can we truly say that our faith is alive at all?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

And with the heavenly blessed sing . . .

Adoring praises now we bring and with the heav'nly blessed sing: "Christ has triumphed!  Alleluia!"
Be to the Father, and our Lord, to Spirit blest, most holy God,
all the glory, never ending!  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
 -   ELW no. 367, Paul Z. Strodach, 1876-1947, alt.

Thanks be to God for Easter, when all our hymns seem to invite the heavenly host to sing praise to God for Jesus' resurrection.  Thank you, Mother, and all the rest of you heavenly host, for singing with us all today that Christ is risen indeed!  And praise and thanks to God who has raised Jesus from the dead.  Because now we need not be afraid of anything.

Nothing.  Ever.  This is a new creation, a new world.  And though we thought death was all-powerful, the end, the finality, it is no more.  It is truly the last enemy to be destroyed.

And so we sing Alleluia!  For we are no longer afraid.

The dawn has come.  The Son is risen.  Thanks be to God!