On This Night

nativity-scene12 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. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

 15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.  (Luke 2: 1-20, KJV)

This is the time for which we have waited.  This is the time that makes the world stop, if only for a moment, and say a prayer for peace and light our candle and gather around our Savior.  This is the night that we keep and ponder.

Mary and Joseph did not know that first Christmas what their lives would hold.  They knew the child that lay in that manger was special, even holy.  But it would take time for them to understand and grasp that this tiny child that lay there was God coming into the world.  And those Shepherds, out, minding their own business, tending to their flock—what would you have thought when the very glory of the Lord came around?  Fear not..ugh oh, we’ve heard that before.  That can’t be good.  That means that the floor of your life will give way until you can no longer stand where you are.  That means that you have to leave the place where you are and begin to journey far.  That means that nothing, nothing will ever be the same again.

We cannot live in this manger.  Jesus will not be there.  So, yes, we have to ponder for a bit.  After all, changing life courses is not something to be taken lightly.  But soon the child will grow and become what God intends.  We must do the same, following Christ into the darkness by the light of a star that will remain with us always—as long as we don’t go back and leave it behind.  The people who have walked in darkness have, yes, finally seen a great light.  And as we walk, we open our hands to receive what God has in store.  The journey ahead will not be easy.  It is not for the faint of heart or those that think they can do it by themselves.  It is for those that hunger and thirst in the deepest part of their being for the very presence of God.  Eat this bread!  Drink this cup!  Jesus Christ is born today!

Christ is born!  God is come!  And nothing will ever be the same.  Thanks be to God!

  Christmas did not come after a great mass of people had completed something good, or because of the successful result of any human effort. No, it came as a miracle, as the child that comes when his time is fulfilled, as a gift of God which is laid into those arms that are stretched out in longing. In this way did Christmas come; in this way it always comes anew, both to individuals and to the whole world. (Eberhard Arnold)

FOR TODAY:  Let us go and see this thing that has happened.

Merry Christmas on this Holiest of Nights,

Shelli

Faith in the Midst of Everything Else

city-streetsPaul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1: 1-7)

So many of us spend our time trying to “find” God, perhaps trying to get to the place where God is.  We often forget that God is not sitting in some faraway place until we clean up our act or pray more or get more religious or figure it all out. (OK, THAT’S probably never going to happen.)  God comes into the normalcy of our lives.  God shows up on city streets and country lanes.  God appears in places that we wouldn’t dare go ourselves.  God does not limit the Divine to the places that are cleaned up and presentable.  God comes not just to the places where we think we should be but the places where we spend our days and spend our hours, the times when we laugh and grieve and dance and walk and get all confused and discombobulated and feel like we’re all alone.  The coming of God into our midst in this very chaotic and holy season reminds us of that.  God did not sit in some far-off palace eating hors d’oeuvres until everyone caught up with the Divine.  God came into the lowliest of cities and was born in the dirtiest of cribs and was held by the poorest of the poor who had been refused entrance to what most of us would count as normal.

The point is that God comes not to the ones who deserve God’s Presence, not to the ones that are really all that prepared, not to the ones that have done what they need to do, but to us.  God comes to us.  God comes into our lives just as they are and begins to walk, first taking our hand and guiding our steps until we can run on our own and help others along the way.  God comes into the places where God is unrecognized and needed the most.

Once I baptized a baby who was eating a Ritz cracker.  The mother was, of course, trying to calm the squirming child down enough to get some holy water on his head and hear the words that reminded us who he was and who we were.  It worked.  There, with Ritz cracker in hand, Hudson was reminded (or his parents were reminded) that he was a son of God with whom God is well pleased.  And I’m thinking that if all that took was a Ritz cracker, then we ought to spend our whole journey with an open box in tow.  We do not have to clean up our act before God comes.  God is willing to come into the very messiness of our lives.  If it takes a Ritz cracker to calm us down enough to receive it, then so be it.  THIS Advent, THIS Christmas, in the moment that you are now, look up and know that God comes, with our without hors d’oeuvres.

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time.  God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain.  God came with Love.  Rejoice!  Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (From “First Coming”, by Madeleine L’Engle)

FOR TODAY:  Pay attention to God’s coming.  It’s happening now.

Grace and Peace,

Shelli

Mine to Walk

path-795x380Scripture Passage (1 Corinthians 10: 12-13)

12So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

 

Well, this is enough to rattle anyone’s self-confidence! We like to think that if we “get there”, you know, confess our sins, profess our belief, get baptized, do what we’re supposed to do, check all the boxes of good church people, that everything will turn out alright. The problem is that it’s not a one-time thing. (Yes, I’m Methodist. Sadly, we are not “once saved, always saved”.) I mean, really, what good would that do? We just spend a little bit of time on our best behavior and then we’re “in”. I don’t think God works like that. It’s not about what we’ve done; It’s about who we are. It’s about who we’re becoming. It’s about relationship. Our faith journey is long and sometimes hard and sometimes glorious. Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we know we get it right. Sometimes we find ourselves diving into deep and wonderful pools of clear reviving water and other times we seem to wallow in the shallow mud pits of life. Sometimes we can feel so connected to God that there is no doubt in our minds or our hearts that the Divine is right there, almost touchable, almost approachable. But we cannot rest on the laurels of our past. That’s not the way relationships work.

 

Living a life of faith really does not allow us to become complacent. It doesn’t allow us to sit back and bask in our glorious history that we bring to the table. God’s not really concerned with the fact that my grandparents were good, church-going people (at least not as far as my faith journey is concerned). It was good for them and they taught me well. But, now, it’s mine. God wants to have a relationship with ME. That’s the reason that “inherited” faith can only go so far (which means that, thanks be to God, that whole “sins of the fathers [and the mothers]” thing also only goes so far. My faith journey is mine. It is my relationship with God. It is my walk toward and with the Divine. It is mine to walk, mine to navigate, mine to mess up and get all turned around and not know where to go. It is mine to choose to stop and stay mired in what I think is the “right” way or what hymns I like to sing or what style of worship in which I like to participate. It is mine to halt at any point and sit down and bask in what I’ve done or become laden down by what I’ve neglected to do. And with God’s grace, it is mine to begin again. Oh, don’t get me wrong. We help each other along the way. Hopefully, we can give each other what we do not have. And that, too, is God’s grace.

 

This journey of Lent is sort of a microcosm of our whole faith journey. We begin where we are (wherever we are) and we look at our self and we look at our lives and we see what we really are—beloved children of God. And then we look at the ways that we’re NOT what we really are, the ways that we have allowed ourselves to overstep or overreach or overindulge or somehow become a little too full of what we imagine we can be. We look at the ways that we do not walk with God. And then God offers a hand (or someone else’s hand) and we begin to walk. And the road twists and turns and the storms come and the sun’s heat bears down on us and the winds whip around and the sand gets in our eyes. And then we see the light of the path ahead once again and we follow it, at least until we get off track again. And in those times when we feel the path beneath us, those times when we are aware of God’s presence, those times when God’s grace seems to wrap around us and hold us, we realize that the hand we hold never lost its grip on our lives. And we relax a little. We become comfortable. We might become a little complacent again. We become a little too certain that we’ve got it figured out. And then the winds begin again and the curtain tears and the darkness descends upon us. But this time, we know to wait, to wait in holy silence until the stone of our lives is rolled away so that we can begin again. That is faith. That is the journey. We don’t travel it alone but no one can do it for us.

 

Deep within us all there is an amazing sanctuary of the soul, a holy place…to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us…calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions…utterly and completely, to the Light within, is the beginning of true life. (Thomas R. Kelly)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

Yearning to Fill a Restless Heart

Reaching for GodScripture Passage (Psalm 85:8)

8Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.

 

So, we’re on this journey, a journey toward who we are meant to be, a journey toward God with God, a journey where we are searching for God. The truth is, God is not lost. God is not up ahead waiting for us to catch up or up above waiting for us to clean up our act so we’ll get there! God is here and has been here all along, from the beginning (actually, even BEFORE the beginning). Actually, God IS the beginning (and the end and the middle and all the stuff around it.) So what exactly is this journey? What is our spiritual walk that we try so hard to maintain?

 

Maybe we need to go back to the basics. For what is it that you hunger? What brings you life? What gives you energy? All those questions are really close to the same. They all have to do with sustenance, with filling what is empty and satisfying what is wanting. St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” That’s our story—we are not evil; we are not bad; we are not unrighteous or ungodly or un-whatever; and we are certainly not “only human”. (I hate that…Jesus was human, fully human, so there’s no “only” about it. Maybe we’re inhumane sometimes, (maybe a lot!) but we’re not “only” human.) We’re not any of those things. We are beloved. God made us. We are part of God. But we just haven’t found our place yet. We are not bad; we are restless. We know there is something more. Our heart knows it. Our heart knows that there is an emptiness and a wanting that we almost cannot bear. It is that “God-shaped hole” again. Our hunger, our emptiness tells us that in our deepest being, we desire to be with God, to walk with God. And God, in God’s infinite love, is at the root of that hunger.

 

And so we journey. We walk and we walk and we walk and we search and we search and we search. This IS our spirituality. This IS our journey. This IS our Way. We all have it. Some of us struggle with it, muddying it with materialism and prejudice and fear that we will lose control or lose what we have. And some of us somehow, by God’s grace, actually travel further than we dared, into the unknown, into the wilderness. It is always a bit of a struggle, even for those that seem have their spirituality all together. If it wasn’t, then God would have just filled our heart and then hardened it up so it couldn’t go anywhere and never made the world at all. But God made us to journey, called us to journey, called us to search and wander and to, somehow, along the way, learn to trust that our real desire is to be with God, to fill our hearts with God and to, finally, have peace (not to be righteous, not to be holy, not to be perfectly and fully-versed in the ways of God, not to be the “best” at spirituality—just to have peace).

 

Our journey, our spiritual walk, is the way that God relates to us and the way we respond. It’s a dance. And the best dancers do not drag their partners across the floor or dance in front or over those in the line. The best dancers understand the rhythm that is not theirs but to which they belong. There are no easy directions to your spiritual journey. You will not find this in a self-help book. There is no quick fix, no shortcut, no road that is better paved or with less traffic. The Way is yours and God’s. And as you dance, your heart fills, and when it is full to what you thought was the brim, to the place where you cannot imagine it can fill anymore, you will find that you only yearn for God.

 

You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness. You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness. You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you. I tasted and now I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace. (St. Augustine of Hippo)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

A Question of Citizenship

Flags of different countriesScripture Passage (Philippians 3:14-4:1)

14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. 17Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. 4Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

 

 

This passage is pretty familiar. Most people read the words “goal” or “prize” and imagine that whatever it is we are journeying toward is some sort of reward for a job well done. So we assume that if we live righteous (or whatever we think that might be) and godly (really? You are planning to become “like God”?) lives, we’ll get to where it is or what it is or whatever it is that we want to go. But the problem is that Paul is probably not implying that this journey is some sort of course of study for life that is all laid out with prerequisites and gold stars and graduations. Paul is talking about a pattern of life, a way of being, a life lived with the mind of Christ. In other words, we are called to enter that Way of Christ, to become the Way of Christ. It’s not about getting a good report card; it’s about becoming someone different.

 

And then we’re hit with an even more uncomfortable notion. Look around you. What you see, what you know best, what you aspire to be, what you dream of having, what you think you have, what you think you possess—all of that means nothing. In fact, it’s not even yours. Oh don’t get me wrong. We are in no way called to remove ourselves from the world. In fact, we are called to throw ourselves into it with all our might. But we throw ourselves into a world that not only is not ours but is really something that we’re not a part of. To use a well-worn (and now seemingly controversial) phrase, we are “resident aliens”. Our citizenship, where we belong, is not this. Now I don’t think it’s that we belong to another place. We belong to another Way of being. And we are called, with the same mind of Christ, to bring that Way of being into the place where we reside.

 

There is a certain irony that we are hit with this idea of “citizenship” in this politically-charged time that is already filled with questions of who can run for political office based on where they were born. (Getting very tired already…) This is so Roman. The people to whom this original letter was written were probably citizens of a Roman colony. And in that day, “citizenship” was not a right. It was not something that could be acquired. It was an honor that came with birthright. And with that birthright came power. And Paul is contrasting it with a New Identity, a new Way of being that held no class distinctions and no extra credit for having been there as one emerged from the womb. But we still like to reward ourselves for being, I guess, in the right place at the right time, so to speak. The world does it. Our nation does it. Churches do it. We churches like to reward our members first, take care of ourselves first, limit our grace and our mercy to those who are like us, or, even, who ARE us.

 

But holiness and righteousness are not things that can be measured or rewarded or achieved or handed out or held away. They are not part of the ways of the world. Our goal is not to become holy or righteous; our journey is toward a fuller relationship with God, toward having the mind of Christ. It is about relationship; it is about caring and compassion and mercy not just for those like us but for all of our brothers and sisters in this Creation. It is about realizing that we live as aliens, as immigrants (there, I said it!), in a place that is not ours, that is not like us, and yet a place where we live and move and breathe and work and love. We do not possess this. This world, this nation, this church is not ours. It is, rather, the place through which we journey for a season, doing all the good we can, the place where we take others by the hand and lead them home.

 

God leads us to the slow path: to the joyous insights of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being. (Michael Leunig)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

To Hold Dear and Love

14-11-02-#6-Sermon-Thin PlaceScripture Passage (Genesis 15: 1-6)

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

 

We are told over and over to not be afraid. But we still want a guarantee. We WANT to believe that God will work it all out; we WANT to believe that God will sustain us; we WANT to believe, but we’d like to know when things will get worked out to at least our satisfaction, if not our comfort and ease. Now this passage is probably better translated as “trust” than “believe”. Is it the same? Well, probably close. But we tend to think of believing in something as knowing that it’s right. That’s not really right, but it’s what most of us have fallen into. In the 16th century, the Saxon meaning depicted it as “to hold dear or love”. That’s different. That’s WAY different. Do you follow because you think it’s right or because you love it and hold it dear? So is belief more about facts or about the meaning it brings to your life?

 

When we are told not to be afraid, it seems to be more of a call to trust, rather than merely believe. You can believe something, maybe know it’s right in your deepest being, and yet not fully give yourself to it. But Abram was told to trust, to give himself to it. “Come, Abraham. Trust it. Follow it. Give yourself to it. Hold it dear and love it. Become it.” And the covenant, the relationship, came to be.

 

This journey that we’re on is not, of course, a straight and unhindered pathway. There are hills to climb and valleys to maneuver. There is a wilderness to traverse. There are things that come along and get in our way and change our whole schedule when we least expect it. (I had some of those the last few days, which is why I’m WAY behind on “daily meditations”. So, I owe you four extras somewhere along the way!) But we’re not just called to mindlessly and aimlessly follow what we believe to be true.  We are instead called to trust it in our deepest being, to turn ourselves over to it, if you will. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be “blips” along the way. After all, Abraham (formerly known as Abram) would become the father of three major world religions, but he was perfect. He probably wasn’t even trustworthy. We all know he tried to manipulate the outcome of it all a bit. But this faith journey is not about making us perfect humans; it’s not about our blind acceptance of what we do not understand; it’s about relationship. Faith is about realizing and trusting that we are part of a deep and abiding relationship between God and humanity, actually between God and all of Creation as the holy and the sacred pours into our being bit by bit. No, it makes no sense in terms of this world. That’s what makes it faith. That’s what Lent teaches us. So, do not be afraid. Follow what you love and hold dear and I’ll walk it with you.

 

Meaning does not come to us in finished form, ready-made; it must be found, created, received, constructed. We grow our way toward it. (Ann Bedford Ulanov)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli

In Our Search for Belief

Cross-Abstract
“Faith, Day and Night”, J. Vincent Scarpace, 2012

Scripture Passage (Romans 10: 8b-13)

 

“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

 

 

You know, this whole faith journey thing would be a whole lot easier if the rules were better laid out! So, are you supposed to confess your beliefs first or believe what you’re saying first? (because did you notice they get switched in this passage?) I mean, just make it easy! How DO we get this right? Just tell me what I’m supposed to do and I’ll do it! Just tell me what to say. I’m a pretty fast learner. I could probably remember enough to get through the initial exam anyway.

 

That’s what most of us want. That’s what those that Paul was first addressing wanted. Good grief, just tell us what we’re supposed to do to get this right! They wanted him to tell them what acts, what righteousness needed to happen so they could check off that they were following the law. We’re no different. We’re used to racking up points or grades or salary levels (or for churches, it would be members or attendees or giving patterns or apportionments—aaaagggghhhh!—there, I’m better!), all so that we can check off that we’ve achieved something. But when you read this, Paul isn’t even laying out what it is we’re supposed to believe. There’s no talk of original sin or not, no mention of which salvation theory Paul thought was the right one, and no list of rules or beliefs to which we needed to adhere to get “in”. Paul’s answer instead was to just believe. Just ask. Just open your mouth and pour out your heart and say it. That’s all. Because, see, it’s there. It’s all right there. Just call on the Lord and start walking.

 

But there’s another side to this. If we’re not told exactly what it is that we’re supposed to believe, then why would we think that our beliefs are the way everyone should believe? The passage says that “everyone—that means all of us—who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In other words, desiring God is enough. Desiring God is what leads us toward God. Wanting to pray is praying. Yearning to be with God is being with God. Confessing our belief is believing. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have what seem to be crises of faith. (I have one about every week lately!) It doesn’t mean that we will ever get to the point where we don’t have questions. (If you meet someone that tells you they don’t question God or question what they believe, personally, I’d run! I mean, are you really willing to stake your whole existence on what YOU’VE figured out God is going to do?)

 

Desiring God, wanting to be with God, wanting to follow is enough. Beginning is enough. I mean, I’ll be honest, if God had some prescribed list of rules and definitive beliefs in mind, why in the world would God have chosen Paul to be the head writer of the greatest treatise on salvation of all time, with his circular thoughts and grammatically incorrect run-on sentences? Maybe God’s whole idea is that we wander and we explore and we question and we journey not until we “get it” but until we realize that the journey IS the way we live with God, that this wilderness in which we find ourselves IS the Way to God and, at the same time, the way to ourselves. That is the reason that in this season, we find ourselves in the wilderness. It is not a punishment. It is a reminder that the God who created us has never left us. It is for us to realize that in the deepest part of our being, we desire to be with God almost as much as God desires to be with us. That is the reason that God came, Emmanuel, God-With-Us, to walk with us, to perhaps wake up our God-given desires to be with God. So, begin. Wanting to be with God IS being with God. And THAT is something in which you can believe.

 

There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every [person] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. (Blaise Pascal)

 

Thank you for sharing your Lenten journey with me!

 

Grace and Peace,

 

Shelli