Jezreel Valley: Traveling in Darkness

Journey to Bethlehem-Darkness2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

Only one day into the journey, Mary and Joseph were feeling the weight of their trip.  As they left the familiar area surrounding the Lake of Galilee, they entered the Jezreel Valley.  Mary was tired, oh so tired.  The weather had changed and the world was dark.  It was hard to see the pathway they were on.  It was difficult to be assured that nothing was coming toward them from the side.  She so wanted to stop and rest.  But they had to keep moving.  And they of course could not go back alone.  It would not be safe.  So, they had to keep moving through the darkness.  The air was cold and damp, as if the darkness had wrapped around her.  She said a silent prayer for light, for light that would somehow push the darkness away.  Once again, she remembered the angel’s words.  “Do not be afraid.”  But the fears were consuming her.  Where was God?  God be with us.

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Tonight is the longest night of the year, the day of darkness.  We don’t do well with darkness.  We don’t do well with the unknown, with not being able to see our pathway.  And yet so much of our faith journey is made in darkness.  In fact, so much of our faith journey actually begins in darkness.  Creation begins in darkness.  Seeds sprout in darkness.  Birth begins in darkness.  Even light begins in darkness. And on this day of the longest night, we begin to turn a corner.  As the season of winter begins, we are reminded that the cold and the darkness does indeed wrap around the new life that will come to be, protecting it until it is ready to spring forth.

But we try our best to dispel the darkness, to light our lives with whatever artificial light we can find.  And we fill our lives with enough light so that we will never experience the darkness.  And because our lives are so full, there is no place to begin.  There is no room for light.  In my old neighborhood, there is a house that is an old French colonial with wonderful verandas lining both floors of the house.  For years, the house would outline the verandas with twinkling Christmas lights.  It was beautiful.  Then, for some reason I’ve never completely understood, they began to add more and more lights.  They started by stringing lights across the verandas three, five, seven, fifteen times.  Then the next year, they did the same to the house.  They must have had 50,000 lights!  I would describe it as a veritable blob of holiday lights—so many lights, in fact, that you could no longer see the lines of the house itself.  The house had been overtaken by light.  And, let me tell you, it was no longer beautiful.  Light is not pretty or comforting or even helpful alone.  Light is at its best when it illuminates the darkness and creates shadows and contrasts so that we can truly look at the light.

Part of our Advent journey is traveled in darkness.  It is a darkness where we wait for what is to come, not really knowing how or when God will come, but knowing that the light is just up ahead as we journey down this Holy pathway, never alone.  Traveling in darkness means that we must look to the One that guides us.  And, here, in the darkness, we will be able to see the light as it dawns on our world.

In every beginning, there is darkness.  The darkness of chaos seems eternal, Yet form emerges: light dawns, and life is born..  (New Union Prayerbook.)

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

 

Where Righteousness is At Home

Overhanging trees8But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance…. 13But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.  (2 Peter 3: 8-9, 13)

God will come when God will come. We’ve heard that over and over. But, granted, this life of faith is at times frustrating and often just downright difficult. How do you keep holding on to a hope when you often see no progress at all? How can we continue to be forced to wait for whatever it is for which we’re waiting? Because, as the passage says, we are promised a new heaven and a new earth. We are promised that all of Creation will be recreated. We are promised that, once and for all, righteousness will have a home. Righteousness, then, will be the norm. Righteousness will be an everyday thing. Righteousness will be that place where at the end of all our wandering, at the end of all our frustrations, at the end of the difficult days and the hours when you feel like you can do no more, we will enter our sacred place and be invited to pull the covers of righteousness over our heads and feel like things are the way they should be. So in this Season of Advent, we learn to wait. Good things cannot be rushed. The plan for God’s Kingdom was not made hastily and it cannot be just thrown together because we are getting a bit impatient with the whole ordeal. So, what do we do in the meantime? We live as if it’s here. We live righteousness. We give it a home. The Holy and the Sacred is not unattainable. In fact, if we just open our eyes, it is spilling into our lives even as we speak. God does not sit back and watch us squirm and strain until all is said and done. Rather, God gives us glimpse after glimpse and incarnation after incarnation and waits with infinite patience for us to respond. Look around…there are more burning bushes and parted seas and even waiting mangers in holy grottos than we can ever possibly imagine. As the writer of this passage maintains, it is that Holy Patience, that Waiting God in which we find our salvation. And so if we live as if the Holy and the Sacred has completely filled our lives, righteousness will indeed have a home and we will no longer be waiting for salvation.

But the part that we can’t forget, is that after righteousness has found us and soothed us and covered us, the next morning invites us to enter again and bring the home that we’ve found into our lives and into the world. See, the covers were NEVER meant to stay over our heads. Living righteousness is about being whatever it is for which you’ve waited and waking up and living it, whether or not the world seems to notice.
Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.. it’s about learning to dance in the rain. (Vivian Greene)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

(Sorry I’ve gotten thrown off the last few days…life happens…back on track, hopefully! :))

Yeah…but

St_-John-the-Baptist(ADVENT 3C)

15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. (Luke 3: 15-18)

Well if John shows up, it must be Advent. We’re not sure exactly what to do with him. He’s completely unorthodox, dresses oddly, eats bugs, lives in the wilderness, and, it seems, just cannot seem to tone down his rather zealous message. After all, this is the season of sharing and wonder and twinkling lights as we look for the coming of the Christ-child. “John…shhhh…you’ll wake the baby!”

We know that John and Jesus go together. John was born about six months before to Mary’s cousin, the child of parents who never thought they would have a child. And, if you remember, John was the one who supposedly moved or kicked or at least made himself noticed in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary walked in the room. John was clear about his calling. He was not the Messiah but he was the one who would point to the Messiah. He was the forerunner, the opening act, if you will, that would set the stage for who and what was to come. John preached repentance, turning around. His message carried an urgency that called us to change, to be ready for the coming of Christ. Yeah…but…

But we still don’t know what to do with him. We like to think of Jesus as one who is kind and compassionate so John sort of becomes the “bad cop” in the duo. But have you ever thought that perhaps we have a hard time understanding John because, truthfully, we don’t understand Jesus. If John was the one that pointed to Jesus as the one who would baptize with water and Spirit, as the one who wielded the power to save the world, then why would we assume that John’s message was really all that different from Jesus’? See, we like this season of waiting and birth. We like the image of the baby. It’s safe. We like the image of a Jesus who is kind and compassionate, a smiling man surrounded by children as he stands on a mountain and preaches love and mercy and forgiveness. Yeah…but…

Jesus was a radical, folks. Jesus burst into the world essentially through a back door. By the time the establishment knew he was here, things had already begun to change. Jesus did preach love and mercy and forgiveness. But he also preached following and change and a calling to lose our life. That’s right…a calling to lose our life that we know and become someone knew. John called it repentance, turning around. Jesus message was a little more forceful: Lose your life or you die. Change your life or you’ll miss the Kingdom of God. Yeah….but…

There is that moment on Christmas Eve when we sing “Silent Night” and light our candle. In that moment, the incredible twinkling moment, the baby comes into the world for us. But it’s only a moment. Because in that moment, our world changes. For a few verses in the Bible, we’re allowed to be a little silent, to look upon the newborn and beam with expectation. But it doesn’t last long. There is work to be done. Perhaps John’s whole purpose was to simply wake us up so that we would hear the message that Jesus brought. John pointed us to Jesus; Jesus points us to God. Otherwise, it’s just too tempting to stay at the manger and keep Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes where he is kept safe and we are kept comfortable, where we don’t have to think about Golgotha or our own shortcomings. So, THIS Advent, listen to John. Let John’s message point you beyond the manger to the One that will point to God, that will bring you life. But you have to let go for that to happen. Keep in mind, if Jesus as a baby was the point of it all, we would have a manger on our altar. But the baby grows up and asks us to follow. And the cross on our altar reminds us that we will never be the same again. Yeah…but…

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) Jesus did not point people to himself but to God. Our worship of Jesus may well be our worst disservice to him and the easiest way of effectively ignoring him. The religion about Jesus is quite different from the religion of Jesus. May my honoring Jesus never stand in the way of the more important challenge to imitate him in his openness to the Divine. (Ron Miller)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

With Fear and Trembling If We Really Understand It

Anunciation (James Christiansen)
“The Anunciation”, James Christiansen

26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1: 26-30)

Do not be afraid…it sounds so simple. Just stop, stop being afraid. The truth is that in my humble experience, when someone in a Bible story tells you to not be afraid, you probably should totally rethink where you are and what you are doing. It happens over and over again. Throughout the Bible, time and time again, people are approached by other people, by God, by angels, by incinerated bushes, by mountains engulfed in clouds, maybe even by chariots of fire…you name it. There is the person minding his or her own business and then they hear the fateful words: “Do not be afraid.” (Oh, shoot…I was afraid of this!)

Intellectually, we tell ourselves that we have no reason to be afraid because God is by our side, walking with us, protecting us from harm. But Mary’s not afraid of something coming after her. She’s afraid because the very messenger of God is talking to HER, calling HER name. There’s no getting out of it. She stands there but she can no longer feel her feet beneath her. She might as well be sinking into quicksand. In that moment, her world, her carefully-planned world, her simple betrothed little world, the only world that this young maiden has ever known is falling away. It sounds so simple. The Lord is with you. So, thought Mary, what does THAT mean? I mean, I worship God and all. But what do you do when the Lord actually shows up? Because, see, when the Lord shows up, things change. When the Lord shows up, your life as you know it is gone. But do not be afraid. Do not be afraid even though you no longer know where you are going. Do not be afraid even though nothing makes sense any more. Do not be afraid even though you are giving everything that you know away and you are left with nothing that is your own.

There’s an old hymn that says something like “Be not afraid what ere betide. God will take care of you.” But the most disconcerting thing in one’s life is when God really does show up, not to protect us, not to take care of us, but to call us to follow, to call our name and ask us to come and see and be a part of this whole building of the Kingdom of God thing. But, oh yeah, don’t be afraid. The truth is, this life of faith is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who follows God without at least a respectful modicum of fear and trembling doesn’t really understand it at all. You know, I don’t think God is expecting us to not be afraid. After all, we’re walking into the unknown. We’re dancing with mystery and we don’t even know how it will turn out for us. But, oh the dance! Maybe that’s it. God is not asking us to move forward with blind courage but to dance even though we’re a little apprehensive about what may be. Because you see, that would be faith. Faith is not living without fear; faith is dancing to God (hey, someone should name a blog that!) when you barely know the tune and are petrified that you’ll take the wrong step. But you just follow.

And so the angel stood there not able to breathe. The question hung suspended for the longest moment the world had ever known. Clouds gathered and birds stopped their flight just to hear the words. Will you come with me? Will you follow? Will you give your life to me so that I can give my life to you?

38Then 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.(Luke 1:38)

And God came and the world was never the same.

 

God, I am sorry I ran from you.  I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge.  For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain.  So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.  (Annie Dillard)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Preparing the Way in the Midst of Our Clutter

Prepare the Way3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3: 3-6)

 

So once again we encounter the wild wilderness man named John, the one who wears animal skins and eats locusts and honey (well, at least he has a condiment!) John is probably not the most pastoral one among us. He’s forthright and direct, pulling no punches. He doesn’t worry about making it easy for his hearers. His message? “Turn around, turn around NOW, get with the program…prepare the way of the Lord, do it NOW.” And there were at least some who listened, some who followed, and probably some who actually turned around.

 

We hear that we are to prepare the way all the time, particularly this time of year. And so we clean and we deck and we trim and decorate and we cook and we shop (and we shop and we shop and we shop) and we wrap and we open and we sing carols and we light candles and we assume that we have prepared the way. We do it all to prepare for the day, to prepare for the day when we celebrate the birth of Christ. OK, now are you sure that’s what John meant?

 

The truth is, we read this exhortation to prepare and we assume that we have to get busy, that it all depends on us. But where does it say that we have to build the road? We are promised a room (King James translators called it a mansion) that is just for us, a place in the Kingdom. Don’t you think the Way is already there? What preparation does the road need? Maybe the preparing that we are called to do is to clear the road that is already there, to clear the Way of the stuff that we have brought with us that now clutters the road. Our lives are so chock full of stuff and events and worries. Maybe our preparation is not about decorating or making the road presentable. Maybe it is rather about clearing a path on the road that is already there.

 

Maybe John, rather than asking us to build a way to a God that was already in our midst, was calling us to clear our pathway of everything that we have brought with us so that we can travel lightly, so that we can be nimble, so that we can be ready to change. Prepare the Way of the Lord. Make the pathway straight and clear. Do not clutter the way with meaningless thoughts and things but leave a pathway so that we can find our way home. THIS Advent, let us find our way home.

 

God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction. (Meister Eckhart)

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Lowering Our Expectations

Shoes of PovertyScripture Text:  Matthew 1:18b-21

When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

 

Can you imagine Joseph’s surprise?  Good grief, what was God doing while I was busy making plans for God to come?  For generations, my people have been looking for a Savior, planning for that moment, when the King would enter triumphantly.  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.

 

While we were busy looking up, with grand plans for “our Savior”, the God who was on “our side”, God slipped in to the bowels of the world and promised redemption for not just those who were busily looking for God, but the whole world.  The whole world?  The WHOLE world, all of Creation, all of existence.  Maybe the reason that God started where God started was that the rest of us were looking beyond where we should be looking, busily looking for someone to complete what we had started, to validate that what we were doing was right, to raise us up beyond the muck of the world.  But God, even at this moment, descends into places we would rather shake away.  While we were busy looking up, searching for the star in the sky, God descended into humanity.

 

Maybe we were trying to be something we were not.  Maybe we were overreaching a bit.  But God, God comes into our world not to validate us, not to complete us, but to re-create us.  God is good at starting us over, making us new, giving us eyes to see what we have been missing all along.  This human God, this God who laid down in a feed trough, this God who loves everyone humbles us at best.  Who are we that we have such lofty expectations as to think that we are beyond loving someone like us?  Who are we that we missed the holiness in front of us, the sacredness within us, the piece of the Divine that walks beside us even when we don’t notice?  Who are we that we thought ourselves capable of “finding God” without first looking for the God who is always with us, Emmanuel?  Who are we that we thought God would come in the way we expected rather than the way that we needed for Life?  Who are we that we missed our Life?  Who are we that we missed our God?  Maybe we should lower our expectations to a feed trough on the outskirts of power and strength and achievement.  Because there, not only will we find God, but the “we” that we were all along.

 

In this final week of Advent (WHAT?!?  THERE’S ONLY A WEEK?) , 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 for what we expect.

 

What wondrous Love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul!  What wondrous Love is this that caused the Lord of life to lay aside his crown for my soul, for my soul, to lay aside his crown for my soul. (USA Folk Hymn)

 

FOR TODAY:  Lower your expectations.  Look at your life.  Look at your self.  See the God who walks with you in the holiness of days.

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli