The First Day: And Heaven and Nature Sing!

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

(Isaac Watts, 1719)

The day has dawned!  Sometime in the night, God tiptoed into the world and made a home.  And the world will never be the same again.  Most of us barely noticed.  Most of the world wakes this morning and goes on with their lives.  That’s OK.  If God had wanted fanfare, then I supposed God would have come with a bit more flourish and drama.  But instead, God enters as one of us, quietly slipping the Divine into our midst with as little noise as possible.  (Although I suppose it’s hard to enter quietly with a multitude of angels in tow!)

When Isaac Watts first wrote the familiar Christmas carol “Joy to the World”, he didn’t mean for it to be a carol at all.  The words were originally written to celebrate the triumphant second coming of Christ rather than the birth that we celebrate this morning.  I think that’s the reason it works, though.  God’s coming into the world is not merely something that happened more than 2,000 years ago.  Today is not the celebration of the anniversary of Jesus’ birth as if it is some sort of historic relic that we hold; rather, today–THIS day–IS the coming of God into our midst, the realization that even now, Heaven is spilling into our lives, making a home, and Heaven and Nature are singing together.

God comes quietly, tiptoeing into our lives each and every day of our existence.  A new Light has dawned and every day is Christmas!  So when the Holy and Sacred dawn in our life, are we called to join in loud acclaim, or are we called to silently open our our lives and let the Divine spill in?  With all respect to Mr. Watts, I’m not a big watcher of the “Second Coming” of Christ.  I don’t know what that looks like and the Scriptures are not that specific about it.  I think the point of Christmas is that the Lord is come!  God came quietly into our world as the Christ child more than 2,000 years ago.  It was the First Day of the new dawn.  And the Light has been rising each every day since.  And for every heart that quietly opens and makes room for God to tiptoe in and make a home, the Light becomes brighter.  Rather than waiting for God’s coming, let us see that God is here.  Let us see that every day is Christmas.  (And, along the same lines, perhaps every day is the triumphant coming for which we are looking until God’s Kingdom and the recreation of all is complete!)  Joy to the World!  The Lord is come!

The Lord is come!  Let us now go and see this thing that has taken place!

On this First Day of Christmas, open the gift of the Holy and the Sacred, the gift of the Christchild and then open your heart that you might prepare room for God to come each and every day!

Merry Christmas!


Maybe This Night Will Be The Night

“The Nativity”
Lorenzo Lotto, 1523
National Gallery of Art
Washington D.C., USA

Luke 2: 1-14 (KJV) 
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

Mary and Joseph have arrived.  The crowds are almost too much to take, pushing and crushing as the couple makes their way through them.  Mary doesn’t feel well.  She really needs to just lie down and rest.  And when you don’t feel well, the last place you want to be is somewhere that is not home, somewhere foreign, somewhere so crowded, so unwelcoming.  They need to hurry.  There is not too much time left. 

They stop at a small inn up on the hill overlooking the shepherds’ pastures down below.  Joseph leaves Mary for a moment and goes to make arrangements for a place to stay.  But when he returns, his face looks frustrated, almost in tears.  He tells Mary that the inn is full.  In fact, the whole town is full.  There is no place to stay.  There is no room.  But he tells Mary that the innkeeper has given them permission to at least go into the stableroom to keep warm.  He’s freshening the hay now.  Well, it will have to do.

You know, I think the innkeeper gets a bad wrap.  I mean, was he supposed to kick someone else out?  And consider this:  This was not the Hilton.  It probably wouldn’t even qualify as a roadside motel.  It was probably just a couple of small beds in the innkeeper’s home.  And first century houses were often just a room or maybe two of actual living quarters anyway.  The second or third room was attached to the house and used to house the animals that were so much a part of their life.  No one in this small town would have owned a large “ranch” estate. The stable probably wasn’t “out back” the way we think.  It was part of the home.  So the innkeeper was possibly, on some level, bringing Mary and Joseph, bringing strangers, into his home. What that means is that the Divine came into the world because someone acted human.  Isn’t that amazing?

So Mary and Joseph entered the stableroom and, surrounded by animals, tried to get some rest.   They could still hear the crowded city outside.  They could hear the Roman guards yelling as they tried to control the crowds.  It made the place feel every more foreign, even more foreboding.  But directly overhead, was the brightest star they had ever seen.  It was as if the tiny little stable was being bathed in light.  So Mary laid down and closed her eyes.  She knew that the time was almost here.  She knew that the baby was coming into the world.

And on this night of nights, into a cold, dirty stable in a small town filled with yelling and pushing crowds, into a place occupied by soldiers, into a place that did not feel like home, into a world that had no room, God comes.  The door to the Divine swings open and God and all of heaven burst into our little world, flooding it with Light and Life.  And yet, the child in the manger bathed in light, the very Incarnation of the Divine, Emmanuel, God With Us, the Messiah, is, still, one of us.  God takes the form of one of us–just an ordinary human–a human like you and me–to show us what it means to be one of us, to be human, to be made in the image of God.

God comes into a world that is unprepared for God, that has no room for God.  God comes into places that are unclean, unworthy, unacceptable for us, much less for the Divine.  God comes into places that most of us would not go, out of fear of the other, out of fear of the unknown, out of fear of the darkness. And there God makes a home.  The Divine begins to pour into the world and with it a vision of the world pouring into the Divine.  This night, though, is not the pinnacle of our lives but, rather, the beginning.  God comes, bathed in Light, in the humblest of disguises immagineable, into the lowliest of places we know, into the darkest night of the soul, that we might finally know that all of the world is of God, all of the world is bathed in the Divine.  God comes so that we might finally see life as we are called to see it and live life as we are called to live it, filled with mercy and compassion and awareness of our connectedness to all the world.  God comes so that we might finally be human, so that we might finally make room. 

Perhaps the world will never be completely ready for God.  If God waited for us to be completely prepared, God would never come at all.  But this God doesn’t need our preparation. This God doesn’t need to come into a place that is cleaned up and sanitized for God.  Instead, God comes when and where God comes.  God comes into godforsakenness, into a world that is occupied by foreignness, where the need for God is the greatest, into a world that cries out for justice and peace, and there God makes a home.  God comes into the darkness and bathes it in light.

The time is almost here.  In just a few hours the door to the Divine will swing open and God and all of heaven will burst into the world.  If you stop and listen, just for a moment, you can hear the harps eternal in the distance as they approach our lives.  Can’t you feel it?  Doors opening, light flooding in, the earth filled with a new vision of hope and peace.  Maybe, just maybe, tonight will be different.  Maybe this is the night that the world chooses peace and justice and love.  Maybe this is the night that the world takes joy. Maybe this is the night when the world realizes that it is already filled with the Divine.  Maybe this is the night when we become human.  Maybe this is the night that we make room.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
(Phillips Brooks)
On this night of nights, give yourself the gift of making room for God.  Give yourself the gift of being human.  Give yourself the gift of making this night the beginning of God’s coming into the world.
Merry Christmas!

And Hear the Angels Sing!

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though youa are small
among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one
who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

The day is almost upon us.  We’ve got presents wrapped and under the tree and your kitchen probably smells like the cookies that just came out of the oven (or perhaps a tastefully-chosen cinnamon and eggnog candle that mimics the same effect.)  Here at St. Paul’s, we’re approaching the end of the week of frenzy that has included a mad scramble to make sure we have all the information for the 9,846 different bulletins that are needed over the next few weeks. (Well, maybe that’s a gross exageration, but you get the idea!)  Plans are in place.  I think we’re ready…

Really?  We do this every year.  We walk through Christmas sort of like we’re preparing for a very familiar play.  The sets are in place; the costumes are ironed; the lines are memorized.  In those days a decree went out… Mary and Joseph get to Bethlehem at the appropriate time and the innkeeper, following the lines, tells them that there’s no room.  The baby shows up on cue and we light our candles and sing Silent Night and then hang around with the shepherds while we wait a week for The Wisemen to make their appearance.  And then we go back to our lives.  Really?  So, how’s that mystery thing working for you?

God doesn’t usually show up on cue or in the way we’ve planned for God to show up.  Perhaps God shows up when we’ve gone back to our lives.  God tends to show up not where the beckoning is loudest but where the need is greatest.  God comes when our questions are so overwhelming that we begin to doubt and gives the Divine a face and a name.  God comes when the world is not prepared, when the world, mired in oppression and poverty and greed, has not yet gotten around to cleaning itself up and making itself presentable, when the world has made no room and so God makes a home in a place that we assumed was downright godforsaken and bathes it in light.  God comes into our darkness and illumines our way.  God comes in mystery not to confuse us or make it harder to believe but to give us a taste of the transcendent mystery and amazing miracle that is part of us all.  God will come when and where and in the way that God will come.  And more than likely it will be outside of the box we’ve built for God.  When you realize that you do not know, it is there that you will finally see Emmanuel, the God who has been with us the whole time.  Rainer Maria Rilke said to “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.  The point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps, then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Mary and Joseph are close to Bethlehem.  The roads are getting busier and the dust is making it harder to see.  It’s like traveling in darkness.  They are tired.  It would be nice to have a soft bed.  And they do not know what is up ahead.  They do not know what the future holds.  Let it be according to your Word!

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

(Edmund H. Sears, 1849)
         On this day before Christmas Eve, give yourself the gift of mystery.  Let go of your preconceptions (and even your regrets!) about what Christmas holds and what you’ve planned Christmas to be and hear the angels sing!


Last night was the longest night of the year, when the earth’s axis tips the farthest away from the sustaining light of the sun.  In our part of the world, we experienced nearly fourteen hours of darkness.  Known as the Winter Solstice, it also means that winter has officially begun.  Last night was our Service of the Longest Night, which we have every year.  It is a service of acknowledging sorrow in the midst of celebration, grief in the midst of happiness, and light in the midst of darkness.  It is a service that reminds us that God is in all of life.

Recollection, in the context of one’s spiritual walk, means attention to the presence of God in one’s life. Living a recollected life has little to do with happiness or calm.  It’s not about things always going our way.  It’s certainly not about God answering all our prayers in the way we think they need to be answered.  Living a recollected life means living a life that is balanced and enduring.  It means being alive.  It means knowing in the deepest part of our souls that God is with us and that there is always something more than what we see.

As I sat in last night’s service, I couldn’t help but look back over the last year.  Some of those who came up to the altar to light a candle were those with whom I had walked through the most profound loss and grief imagineable.  But I have also held brand new life in my arms and celebrated the hope and promise that comes with that.  In the last months, I have been with those who are staring death in the face and those who in that very moment were crossing the line between earthly life and the next journey.  (And we sang!)  You would assume that that range of experiences comes with being a pastor.  It does, but I think that, more importantly, it comes with being human, being fully human.  Being fully means being totally immersed in the full range of humanity–sorrow and happiness, grief and celebration, life and death.  And in it all is joy–not happiness, which is momentary and fleeting–but true, profound, abiding joy.

This morning I watched an interview with another pastor from Houston (who shall remain nameless but whose initiatls are J.O.) who depicted the Spirit of Christmas as happiness.  Well, I will say that I respectfully disagree.  The Spirit of Christmas, the Spirit of Christ’s coming, is not to bring us happiness and health.  Those are temporary, fleeting.  God was born into this world as human, as fully human, set to experience the full range of humanity.  God brought the Divine Presence into all those things.  And, there, was joy–abiding, eternal, neverending joy!  (And we sang!)

Being fully human means being recollected, seeing the Presence of God in all things and all things in the Presence of God.  Only three more days to go!  The air is so thick with the Presence of God you can almost touch it.  I suppose that’s the whole point.  For what are you waiting?  Recollect yourself.  Become fully human.  There’s a baby coming!  And take joy!

The day is almost here!  Gift yourself the gift of recollection.  Take all that you are and that you have, the full range of who you are, and begin traveling to Bethlehem.  Give yourself the gift of joy, no matter how happy your life is at the moment!

Grace and Peace,


For the Sake of the World

Mary and Joseph have been traveling for a couple of days.  It’s so hard.  The days are sweltering; the nights are cold.  The wind hasn’t stopped.  It’s just that time of year.  Why are we doing this?  Why are we trying so hard to do the right thing?

The truth is, “God With Us? ” is just sometimes a little uncomfortable.  How can we comfortably live our lives with Emmanuel hanging around?  I mean, really, what are we supposed to do?  I saw a bumper sticker several years ago that said, “God is coming; Look busy!” You laugh (because, granted, it’s funny!), but isn’t that what many of us think deep down? No matter what we say intellectually (that God is with us, that God is everywhere, that God is everything), the truth is that we STILL sort of think of God as some sort of far-away supervisor that is “up there” keeping score of our lives. 

Maybe that’s the point!  Maybe Emmanuel, God With Us, means that we ARE to get busy, that we ARE supposed to do something.  Maybe God just got tired of being relegated to scorekeeper and wanted to show us how to play the game!  The miracle of God’s coming is not about a manger, or a star, or a baby.  It’s not about whether or not Mary was a literal virgin or not! (Really, does it matter that much?) And it’s DEFINITELY not about making sure that we buy each person the same number of presents!  The miracle of God’s coming is that the Divine, conceived as removed and secure from the muck of the world, poured into our midst.  God came that the world might change and that we might change along with it.

So do I know Jesus Christ as my personal savior?  (OK, I’ll probably get in trouble here!)  God didn’t come in the form of Jesus to be my brother, or my friend, or even my personal savior.  God came for the sake of the world.  God came bursting into the struggles of this world so that people like me would wake up, recollect myself, and go forward to do what God calls me to do.  God came that we might be for the other.  In all truth, the meaning of Emmanuel, God With Us, is that God’s coming means that it is time for us to go to others, to the world, to wherever God is calling us to go. God’s coming is our call to going.  We hear it over and over in the Scriptures that will come after this story as the child grows and enters ministry–“rise, take up your bed and go home,” “you give them something to eat,” “love your enemies,” “let your light shine,” “love one another,” “take, eat,” “they know not what they do.”  These are as much a part of the Christmas story as “in those days, a decree went out…”, or “laid in a manger,” or “no room in the inn.”  In fact, this is the way that Emmanuel comes over and over and over again.  God came to us as “fully human” and yet still remains as “fully divine.”  Both are made in the image of God, the image of the God’s unfailing and unfathomable grace in the world.

So, is Jesus my personal savior?  For the sake of the world, I pray so.  It’s not about being on my best behavior; it’s about birthing the Savior of the world into the world for the world. 

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gate; behold the King of glory waits;
the King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here.

Fling wide the portals of your heart; make it a temple, set apart
from earthly use for heaven’s employ, adorned with prayer and love and joy.

Redeemer, come, with us abide; our hearts to thee we open wide;
let us thy inner presence feel; thy grace and love in us reveal.

Thy Holy Spirit lead us on until our glorious goal is won;
eternal praise, eternal fame be offered, Savior, to thy name.

(Georg Weissel, 1642, trans. by Catherine Winkworth,, 1855)
God is coming!  Give yourself the gift of being God With Us, of being God in the world!  Give yourself the gift of making Jesus your personal Savior by being Christ for the sake of the world. 

Grace and Peace,



So What, Exactly, Were You Expecting?

What were we expecting?  Well, of course, we were expecting someone obvious, someone  who would make himself known in the world, someone who is a little bit better than you or I.  We were expecting power and might and grandiose presentation.  But instead God walked into our very human existence.  God traversed time and space and the perceived separation between the sacred and the ordinary and entered our everyday world.  On some level, that bothers many of us.  After all, we are trying to do BETTER than this; we are aspiring to be more than human.  What in the world is God doing messing around in the muck of this world?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “by virtue of the creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.”  So, perhaps God came into this very ordinary world to show us the holiness that has been created, the sacredness that in our worldliness, we were somehow missing.  Perhaps God steps into our lives to show us the depth that we haven’t dared to dig into our lives.  Perhaps God came and walked with us not to show us how to be but to show us how to see.  But when it’s all said and done, this practice we have of “looking for God” has been proven bizarre.  After all, it was never God that was lost!  We were never separated from the sacred; we just missed seeing it because it wasn’t what we were expecting.  So, again, what were we expecting?  Maybe the the whole lesson is that God will come when and where and in the way that God will come.  But if there’s a “pattern” to be figured out about this God who cannot be figured out, it’s that God comes into the unexpected, into the unplanned, and into the unprepared places in our lives and lays down in a feed trough and patiently waits for the world to wake up and notice.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to sety thy people free, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee. Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art, dear desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.

Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King, born to reign in us forever, now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit rule in all our hearts alone; by thine own sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.

(Charles Wesley, 1744)

In these final days of Advent,  we are all busy preparing for the day of God’s coming.  But whether or not we get it done, whether or not the house is clean or the goodies are baked or the presents are wrapped, God will come and the world will never be the same.  Expectation is about moving into what will be rather than preparing to bring it into what is.
What are you expecting?  That’s probably not it!  Give yourself the gift of being open to the way that God comes without expecting it to happen in a certain way!

Grace and Peace,


O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

“Journey to Bethlehem”
Joseph Brickey, ca. 1973

So, what does it mean to say “God With us”?  The name, Immanuel, that the child is to be given is a symbolic name, a short Hebrew sentence.  We like the idea of God being here to pull us out of our next quandry in life in which we will find ourselves.  But isn’t it more than that?  God has finally, after an entire history of generations of humanity, sought us out.  In essence, God put aside, if only for a little while, all God-liness, to come and join our little world.  God breaks into humanity not with a triumphant shout but into one of the lowliest, one of the most god-forsaken, one of the most human places of all.  Our image of this patriarchal God sitting on a golden throne somewhere up in the clouds looking down upon this struggling world just doesn’t work anymore.  The God who we could not see, the God who we could not name, the God into whose face we could not look or surely we would die has just become one of us. So what do we do now?

When I was little, I used to lay in bed (when I was supposed to be asleep) and think about the notion of God being “everywhere”.  Well that was something that I just couldn’t get my head around.  I mean, there had to be limits.  There had to be a place where God could not see me.  So I would pull the covers over my head and try to figure out if God could see me there.  We all do that, if only figuratively.  Oh, we SAY that God is with us, we SAY that God walks with us, but then we try to find a temporary hiding place from this God who is “up there” or “out there” or wharever “there” we think God is.  After all, it’s kind of like living with your boss, isn’t it?   I saw a bumper sticker a couple of years ago that read “God is coming.  Look busy!”  Oh, we laugh, because it’s way too close to the way we think!  I mean, we’re all so wrapped up in our lives.  There’s just so little time.  There’s just too much going on!  And the world is changing so rapidly.  It’s not like it used to be.  But we’ll keep working to get to God.  Well, SURPRISE!  God came to us.  Not only that, God came WITH us, entering into the bottom of our house of cards that is our world.  So, it seems now, “getting to God” is really no longer necessary.  Maybe we just have to open our eyes, and hold out our hand, and, oh yeah, it helps if you don’t have the covers pulled over your head!

Modern-Day Israel just outside of the Region of Galilee

Mary and Joseph are journeying toward Bethlehem, silently walking through the dust and sands.  This trip was not convenient but they had no choice.  It normally takes four days or so but it is difficult for Mary to travel.  The world is crazy right now, busy and spinning out of control.  Everything is changing.  There is talk of some unrest and some skirmishes up ahead.  This is not the time to be traveling.  This trip is dangerous.  But they have to keep going.  There’s a baby coming!

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O Come, thou Wisdom, from on high, and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show and cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, O come, great Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law in cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree, an ensign of thy people be; 
before thee rulers silent fall; all people on thy mercy call.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home.
The captives from their prison free, and conquer death’s deep misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Dayspring, come an dcheer our spirity by they justice here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Desire of nations bind all people in one heart and mind.
From dust thought brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

(9th century Latin, with translations by Laurence Hull Stookey; vs. 2 by Henry Sloane Coffin, 1916)

The time is almost here!  In this final week of Advent, give yourself the gift of pulling away everything that clouds your view that you might see the God who Comes.

Grace and Peace,