FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT: Right Side Up

As we light the fourth candle on the Advent wreath today, we began to be aware that things are changing.  Christmas is only a week away.  The world leans toward the light just a bit, if only a bit, trying to get a glimpse, trying to see what is coming.  And as the world leans toward the coming of Christ, we are aware that something is not quite right.  We are aware that perhaps this is not the way the world is supposed to be after all.

When I was little, I used to love to hang upside down.  Things looked different.  I saw things that I had not seen before.  And then I would turn myself right side up, a little dizzy, perhaps even a little nauseous, but better for the view.  God came into this world to show us a different way, to show us that we have somehow, perhaps without really noticing, without really intending it to happen at all, tipped the world upside down.  We have elevated wealth; we have allowed hunger; we have awarded the powerful with more power and have not always paid attention to the compassionate and just part of us. We have allowed the world to tip over and then we have set up house on an upside-down world.  So, God comes.  God comes to right the world.  Our inclination is to hold on, to grasp and claw our way back to what we think is the way up.  But instead God invites us to just go with it, to turn ourselves right just as the world is turning.  Sometimes it is painful.  Sometimes we get dizzy and maybe even a little nauseous.  After all, change is hard.  We might have to give up something that we think is precious to us.  And so we hold on.  We hold on for dear life.  And all the while God is calling us to open our hands that we might receive what God is giving us.

As this final week of Advent begins, we are called to learn to let go.  If all was right with the world, then God would have come wealthy and gold-laden with the power of the world in tow.  But that’s not the way it happened at all.  God instead slipped in when most of us weren’t looking, when most of us were busy making our lives, slippsed into the bowels of the world.  God chose to come into poverty and helplessness to show us it means for everything to be right with the world.  And God, in God’s infinite wisdom, knows how to show us how to stand and walk and even hang upside down once in awhile on this up-turned world and finally, finally, see the way to go.

Shhhh!  You can almost hear them–a faint sound of bells in the distance.  And the world seems to be leaning toward them, tipping just a bit.  Do not hold on; do not stay behind.  Just dance with the music and move toward the Light that is just about to dawn.

I cannot create the light. The best I can do is put myself in the path of its beam.  (Annie Dillard)
 
In this final week of Advent, give yourself the gift of letting go–letting go of all your preconceptions, letting go of all those things that you think your life would not be complete without–and letting God right you with the world.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

ADVENT 4B: The Holiest of Words

Lectionary Gospel Text:  Luke 1: (26-27) 28-38
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Of course, this was not in the plan.  She was supposed to get married, have children, and live our her life in quiet anonymity with the quiet and little-known Joseph.  She knew what her life was going to hold. So, when God’s Presence suddenly is revealed, breaking into her quietly-orchestrated little world, of course she was afraid.  After all, things were never going to be the same.  There would be no going back and the way forward was murky at best.  And so, Mary hesitates, if only for a moment.  The angel, God, all of Creation, the existence of all who would come after her, hangs, suspended, not moving.  The world stops, straining to hear the Word. Things would never be the same again.  History was at this moment shifting and swaying, not sure of what it would become.  So, she takes a breath–one last breath as the quiet girl Mary.  And with a voice that shakes all of eternity, she responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  “YES.”  Nothing would ever be the same again.

On some level, the word “Yes” is perhaps the holiest word of all. It is what changes things; it is what moves us forward; it is our response on this journey that we call faith; it is our way to God.  God calls us, asking us to go a different way, to change our lives and shift our plans, and for one step, or one lifetime, or one eternity, to follow a sacred road that we did not see before.  For this child Mary, when the mystery of God broke into her consciousness, into her plans, she probably did hesitate.  Good grief, who wouldn’t?  Don’t you think God expects that to be our initial response?  I mean, you’d have to be completely naive or so incredibly self-absorbed and arrogant to not know what was happening to you.  But Mary was anything but naive and nothing near arrogant.  She DID know.  Oh, not the details.  She didn’t know how this would alter not only her world, not only her community, but all worlds and communities that ever were and ever would be. She didn’t know how difficult and frustrating her life would be.  She didn’t know that a little more than three decades later, she would be standing at the foot of two cross-boards helplessly watching this life that she was bringing into the world slip away.  She didn’t know how incredibly blessed she would be.  She didn’t know what she would become–the lovely subject of artists and sculptors, the namesake of great cathedrals and small house churches, the mother of the world.  She didn’t know.  She just knew that it was the way that was hers.  So, yes. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Christmas Eve is only a week away, when the wildly spinning world will stop, if only for a moment and once again welcome hope and peace into the world.  But that moment is not the holiest one.  The holiest moment of all is the one that comes next, the one that after the initial hesitation, after the initial, “How can this be?”, when we put down our carefully-packed baggage filled with plans and preconceptions, when we open our closed minds and and our cynical hearts, and become virgin enough to birth the Christ into our little world.  It is the moment when we say “Yes”, knowing that it will change us forever. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

And when the night is cloudy there is still a light that shines on me
Shine until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music, Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
There will be an answer, let it be
Let it be, let it be, let it be, yeah, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be

(“Let it Be”, Words by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1970)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0X_Gd1y2MFo&feature=related

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of being virgin enough to move forward, of being open to birthing the Christ into your life, of forming the holy and the sacred on your lips and then speaking the “Yes” that God and the whole world is waiting for you to speak.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Frenzied

Well, it’s about that time!  TEN MORE D AYS!!! 20% OFF ONE DAY ONLY!!!  FREE SHIPPING TODAY ONLY!  FIRST 100 CUSTOMERS RECEIVE A FREE ______________ [I don’t know, just fill in the blank!]  The truth is, we are frenzied!  We live at a frenzied pace with which, truth be known, none of us can keep up.  I think about my last couple of days.  I made cheesecakes on Monday night for a staff party.  Tuesday night, the fully Type A in me made a list of what I needed to do in the next ten days.  Really?  A list? Last night I talked to a friend on the phone for way too long, which means the list is already thrown way off.  And today? Well, first of all, I found out late in the day that google had somehow  “mediated” my post from today, which means I had to TELL it that it was not spam. (OK, really, would I “spam” myself?)   I think it’s just a conspiracy to keep us from dancing!  (Anyway, sorry about that!)

But, think about it–we’re probably not the first people on the planet to live frenzied.  Think back–“Joseph, you’ll need to spend the next few days and take off from your carpenter’s job and pop over to Bethlehem to pay this new tax that we’ve concocted.  We hope that works for you. Oh?  Your wife is about to go into labor?  And, really, she is birthing the salvation of the world, the Son of the God, the Messiah?  Well, that’s great, but you still need to pay your taxes on time or we can garnish your wages or take your house or throw you into once of those new Roman prisons.”  And so they went–Mary and Joseph, supposedly on a donkey or a mule or something of the like.  They arrived in Bethlehem.  But apparently everyone had gotten the same notice.  Do you believe all this traffic?  Why didn’t we make a reservation?  (Oh, really, Joseph?  What were you thinking?) Where is that first century Groupon when you need it?  Mary, I know this is hard.  I PROMISE that I will find a place for us to spend the night.  You’re WHAT?  NOW?  Are you kidding me? 

We all know the story.  There would be no room.  There would be frenzy.  And so we made do.  We took what we could get–a sort of back room filled with hay and cast-off blankets.  It was filled with animals cowering from the cold.  And there Jesus was born into the frenzy of the world.  Truth be known–there was never calm but there was always peace.  But the point is that God still came–came into the frenzy of the world.  God does not wait until everything is calm and together.  God does not come because you have all the decorations up (I think most of mine will again stay packed away in storage); God does not come because you finally have all the gifts wrapped; and God does not come because the world is ready, because the world is at peace. God just comes, frenzy and all.  And all we have to do is put on our dancing shoes!
 
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of not having to have everything perfect, of not bowing to frenzy.  Give yourself the gift of peace!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

ADVENT 4B: ‘Bout Time We Start Dancin’!

Lectionary Text: Romans 16: 25-27
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

In this Fourth week of Advent, we read this doxology along with the imminence of Jesus’ birth.  Read alongside the story of Mary as God-bearer, we have the sense that the full Gospel is starting to unfold.  This is in no way a “replacement” for the Law of Moses; it is that Law seen to its fulfillment in the new humanity, the new Adam, in Jesus Christ.  Gentiles have been “grafted” into a story that was already taking place, already in full swing.  This is nothing new.  It is, rather, the doxology.  For Paul, HIS gospel was the “unveiling” of something that had been around from the very beginning.

Scholars think that it is quite possible that Paul did not write these verses but that they were attached to the end of the letter perhaps AS a doxology, a statement of praise and proclamation.  But regardless of who wrote it, this is a statement of response.  It is, to use Paul’s words, an “obedience of faith.”  The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ invokes our response; otherwise it is virtually meaningless.  In Feasting on the Word, Cathy F. Young quotes Helmut Thielicke when he says, “Faith can be described only as a movement of flight, flight away from myself and toward the great possibilities of God.”  The whole gospel in its fullness is about our response.  It is our faith that moves it and opens up the possibilities that God envisioned.

Advent is about letting ourselves envision what God envisions and then moving toward it.  Because into this world that often seems random and meaningless, full of pain and despair; into this society that is often callous and lacking of compassion, directionless and confused; into our lives that many times are wrought with grief and a sense that it is all for naught; into all of it is born a baby that holds the hope of the world for the taking.  We just have to be open and willing to take it.  The great illustrator and writer, Tasha Tudor said, “the gloom of the world is but a shadow.  Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy.  Take joy!”  This is what this doxology says:  All of this that has been laid out for you, all of this that has been created; all of this that has for so long been moving toward your life, take it.  Take joy!  Tomorrow will be your dancing day!

I love Christmas Eve at St. Paul’s.  I actually don’t know how to explain it.  It’s magnificent; it’s magical; it’s mystery.  It’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. It moves you into someplace that you have not been before.  It takes you out of yourself and gives you a glimpse, albeit a tiny, tiny glimpse, of what it’s all about, of why we’re here, of that to which we journey.  This will be my eighth year to participate in the processional that winds through the nave, encompassing everyone who is there in music and candlelight and incredible joy.  I say processional because, even though it comes toward the end of the service, it leads us to something more.  It leads us to our response.  It brings me to tears.  (I will say that in these last seven years, I have been brought to tears each year–six because it has moved me beyond myself and the seventh because, I have to tell you, Gail caught Emily’s hair on fire with her candle and had to hastily put it out with her bulletin.  Thankfully, Emily had very little hair product on her hair that night!  We were laughing so hard we couldn’t even see where we were going!  (See, you just don’t know what will happen when you let us loose!)

But the point is that this is our way of taking joy, of connecting to the mystery of the God who came and comes. Often, our choir will sing an Old English carol that I have grown to love (in fact, let it be known, that I want it sung at my funeral!)  because it is a song of joy, a song of deep abiding love.  It is the song that we should all be singing.  It is our invitation to joy.  The song itself is more than a carol.  It has additional verses (although some are extremely anti-semitic).  It tells the story of Jesus’ life, the Gospel, the Good News–the birth, the life, the death, the life.  It is the Song of Joy and our invitation to join in!      

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play, to call my true love to my dance;

Sing, oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love, this have I done for my true love.

Then was I born of a virgin pure, of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature, to call my true love to my dance.

(Refrain)

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was, so very poor, this was my chance
Betwixt and ox and a silly poor ass, to call my true love to my dance.

(Refrain)

Traditional English Carol
OK, the time is not here yet, but don’t you think it’s ’bout time we start dancin’?  Somehow our world has taught us to hold back, to not “count our chickens before they’re hatched”, to be reserved.  But God?  God just wants us to start dancing so that everyone else will join!
 
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of taking joy, of realizing what God holds for you, of dancing the dance to which you’ve been invited!  Let tomorrow be your dancing day!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Putting On Shoes



God became human.  Well, sure, God can do that if God chooses, but why?  Why would the Divine CHOOSE to become human, CHOOSE to live a life that includes suffering and fear, CHOOSE to live in this imperfect world?  It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  I suppose it’s part of that mystery thing.  And the truth is, we struggle with it.  We try to justify it.  You’ve heard it all before:  “God was the perfect human,” “God was only posing as a human,” or “It was part of God’s plan.”  Really?  God PLANNED to be born into poverty, PLANNED to be born into an oppressive society, PLANNED to struggle, PLANNED to be disliked, and PLANNED to die?  I don’t really know if that was all part of God’s plan or not.  Is it so hard for us to accept that God just CHOSE to be one of us?  After all, part of being human is being subjected to a certain randomness of order, to a life that, as hard as it is for us to imagine, is beyond our control, and to not only the free will of ourself, but also the free will, the choice to do right or do wrong, that others around us have. Being human means that not all of life is a predictable pattern, not all of life is planned.  But, nevertheless, God became human.  After eons and eons of trying to get our attention, God put on shoes and walked with us.

“Incarnate” literally means “taking on flesh.”  It means becoming tangible, real, touchable, accessible.  It means becoming human.  It means putting on shoes. In the book Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr calls it God’s “most dangerous disguise.”  After all, taking on flesh, becoming tangible, becoming real, touchable, accessible also makes one vulnerable and that is incredibly dangerous.  God put on shoes to show us how to be vulnerable, to show us how to give up a piece of ourself and open ourself to the Divine.

The Shoe Heap, Auschwitz, Poland

More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, Poland.  I expected to be appalled; I expected to be moved; I expected to be saddened at what I would fine.  I did not expect to become so personally or spiritually involved.  As you walk through the concentration camp, you encounter those things that belonged to the prisoners and victims that were unearthed when the camp was captured–suitcases, eye glasses, books, clothes, artifical limbs, and shoes–lots and lots and lots and lots of shoes–mountains of humanity, all piled up in randomness and namelessness and despair.  This is humanity at its worst.  This is humanity making unthinkable decisions about one another based on the need to be in control, based on the need to be proved right or worthy or acceptable at the expense of others’ lives, based on the assumption that one human is better or more deserving than another.

And yet, God CHOSE to be human.  God CHOSE to put on shoes, temporarily separating the Godself from the Holy Ground that is always a part of us, and entering our vulnerability.  God willingly CHOSE to become vulnerable and subject to humanity at its worst.  But God did this because beneath us all is Holy Ground.  God came to this earth and put on shoes and walked this earth that we might learn to take our shoes off and feel the Holy Ground beneath our feet.  God CHOSE to be human not so we would learn to be Divine (after all, that is God’s department) but so that we would learn what it means to take off our shoes and feel the earth, feel the sand, feel the rock, feel the Divine Creation that is always with us and know that part of being human is knowing the Divine.  Part of being human is being able to feel the earth move under your feet, to be vulnerable, to be tangible, to be real, to take on flesh, to be incarnate.  Part of being human is making God come alive.
  
In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of being human, being vulnerable, and knowing the God who is Divine. Take off your shoes and feel the earth move under your feet.  God is coming!  The earth is beginning to move!

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

    

ADVENT 4B: The House of God

Model of the Temple
Museum in Jerusalem, Israel

Lectionary Text:  2 Samuel 7: (1-5a), 5b-7, (8-9) 10-11, (16)
Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”…And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evedildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.

This text wraps up the promise that God made to Abram in Genesis 12.  The people have a land that they can claim as their own and they can live in peace.  And David’s reign as king has been pretty much legitimized. Things seem to be going well.  And so David envisions now a more permanent structure to house the ark of the Lord.  In other words, David now desires to build a temple in Jerusalem.

But that night the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with a promise not necessarily of a permanent “house” but, rather a permanent dynasty, an everlasting house of the line of David.  David has risen from shepherd boy to king and has apparently felt God’s presence through it all.  He now sits in his comfortable palace and compares his “house” to the tent that “houses God” in his mind.  So he decides that God needs a grand house too.  God, through the prophet Nathan responds by asking, in a sense, “Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you’re going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I’M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after ‘you lie down with your ancestors.'” God promises to establish David and his line “forever,” and this is a “no matter what” promise, even if the descendants of David sin, even if “evildoers” threaten.  
The truth is, we all desire permanence; we want something on which we can stand, that we can touch, that we can “sink our teeth into”, so to speak.  We want to know the plan so that we can plan around it.  Well, if this was going to make it easier to understand God, go ahead.  The truth is, this is a wandering God of wandering people.  This is not a God who desires or can be shut up in a temple or a church or a closed mind.  This is not a God who desires to be “figured out.”  This God is palatial; this God is unlimited; this God will show up in places that we did not build.  (and sometimes in places that we really wouldn’t go!)  This God does not live in a house; this God dwells with us—wherever we are.  This God comes as a traveler, a journeyer, a moveable feast.  And this God shows up where we least expect God to be—in a god-forsaken place on the outskirts of acceptable society to a couple of people that had other plans for their lives.  This God will be where God will be.  And it IS a permanent home.

In this Advent season, we know that God comes.  That is what we celebrate; that is what we remember; that is what we expect.  After all, this God we worship is the one that is with us, Emmanuel.  But have we planned too much?  Have we somehow convinced ourselves that God can be directed or choreographed or planned into being?  Have we forgotten what it means to simply build a house in which God can live?  Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  Go ahead, build it.  It will be magnificent!

In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of building a house of God.  There is no blueprint; there are no plans.  It has no walls, no ceiling, no floor.  It is open to the God who comes.  And know that God will come.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli
      

The Story of God

“Birth of Christ”, Robert Campin
ca. 1425-30

There is not one of us that does not love The Christmas Story.  It’s got it all–heartache, darkness, intrigue, danger, animals, innocence, an oppressive government, and a baby to boot.  It’s got all those things that make great tales.  No wonder it’s a bestseller!  No wonder there are so many songs written about it (that we at this moment cannot WAIT to sing!)  But for all the romantic notions of a baby born into a cold desert night in a small town on the other side of the world to poor, struggling parents, this story is not about a birth.  It’s not a story about Jesus.  This is the Story of God.

It began long before this.  It began in the beginning.  It began when God breathed a part of the Godself into being and created this little world.  And as the story unfolded, as God’s Creation grew into being, God remained with them, a mysterious, often unknown Presence, that yearned to be in relationship with what God had breathed into being.  And once in a while, God’s children would stop what they were doing long enough to know and acknowledge the incarnations of God.  Once in awhile, they would encounter a burning bush or a parting sea or an unfathomable cloud on the top of a mountain.  Once in awhile they would stop, take off their shoes, and feel the holiness beneath their feet.  But more often than not, they struggled in darkness, they struggled in war, they struggled in oppression and injustice because they didn’t see the Light that was with them.  God called them and God sent them and some were prophets and some were wise and some were yearning themselves to be with God.  Some wrote hymns and poetry telling of their yearning and others just bowed and hoped that God would notice.

This wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t enough for the people and it wasn’t enough for God.  God yearned to be with what God had created.  God desperately wanted humanity to be what they were made to be, to come home to the Divine.  And so God came once again, God Incarnate, into this little world.  But this time, God came as what God had created.  And so God was born into a cold, dark night.  But the earth was almost too full.  There was little room for God.  But, on that night, in a dark grotto on the outskirts of holiness, God was born.  The Divine somehow made room in a quiet, little corner of the world.  God came to show Creation what had been there all along.  And, yet, there was Newness; there was Light; there was finally Meaning; there was God Made Known.

The Incarnation (the “big I” one!) is God’s unveiling.  It is God coming out of the darkness and out of the shadows and showing us what we could not see before.  God became one of us to show us how to be like God in the world.  So, in this season, we again hear the story.  We hear the story of God.  But unless we realize that it is our story, it still won’t be enough.  God came as God Incarnate into this little world to tell the story that goes back to the beginning.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  (John 1: 1-5)  And the story continues… 

In this season of Advent, give yourself the gift of being a part of the story, of being Light, of being Life, of being who you were created to be in the beginning.  Give yourself the gift of making room for God.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli