10th Day of Christmas: God With Us

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. -Revelation 21:1-6a

Dwell with us

you downcast and down trodden

be made new.

you who wait. [im]patiently.

be made new.

you tired out and tried out
you suffering and dying
you mourning and crying

be made new.

you confused and rejected
despised and affected
abused and neglected

be made new.

you lovers and loveless
you fighters and distressed
you need-to-be-made-whole ones
you broken and poor ones
you bargainers and self-assured
you swindlers and upright

be made new.

for the home of G-d is among mortals.
dwelling with us.

in the ordinary
the messy
the sticky
the beautiful

for the home of G-d is among mortals.

for us.
in us.
through us.

be. made. new.

A reflection by Sophia Agtarap

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Sophia Agtarap serves as Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church with United Methodist Communications, and is a candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church through the Pacific Northwest Conference. She spends lots of time musing and crafting stories of and for the church over a good cup of coffee. Sophia tweets @SophiaKris. She also blogs at wanderingnotlost.com

3rd Day of Christmas: Reflection on Titus 2:11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

One of the many debates I had with professors in seminary was focused on this passage. The question was built around how we understood God’s redemptive acts: is salvation FOR all people or did God appear TO all people. The question has continued with me as I never found peace with any conclusion. Yet peace is what is found when we’re willing to live with that ambiguity, and this scripture gets right to the point of why that is.

“While we wait.”

“While we wait” is a term that we’ve all heard in some form: “While we wait for permission to take off, please listen to your flight attendants as they review the safety instructions of this aircraft,” or maybe when we were young, “While we wait for dinner why don’t you go wash your hands.”

Waiting is a hard thing for us in this culture. We want to get to the point, get to a conclusion, get to a destination. A couple of days ago we GOT there as Christians! Christ is Born! Christmas happened! WOOOO! Okay, but now again, we wait. We wait, and we’re told to do things we know we should do, but don’t always (I know I don’t listen to safety instructions nor did I often wash my hands) while we wait. We wait for “Thy Kingdom Come.” A Kingdom that Jesus always referred to in the present tense. Well if we’re here, and it’s here, then what are we waiting for?

We’re waiting on us. Waiting for us to do the beautiful things that need to be done. That’s what good deeds are, they are the beautiful things that need to be done. Beautiful things like justice, mercy, and humbleness. Beautiful things like love. Beautiful things like peace. Beautiful things like joy. Beautiful things like hope. Beautiful things that make us all live into that image in which we are created.

Beautiful things were done on Christmas, beautiful things need to be done today.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

Adj Williams

Adj is the Director of Educational Ministries at Harbor View Presbyterian Church. Adj tweets at @keepsetting and blogs at http://keepsetting.blogspot.com

2nd Day of Christmas: In the Beginning Was the Word

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in the beginning

was the word.

one

Word.

i am repeating

something i have said before.

say it again.
shall i say it again?

a child has been born.

for us.

a son given.

to us.

shall there now be endless peace?

“for hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

a great light has shined

on us.

bending us

turning us

tangling us

opening us

cradling us

in the light.

those who lived in a land of deep darkness

we who live in a land of deep darkness

a light has shined.

uphold it with justice and with righteousness.

the light shines in the darkness.
and the darkness did not overcome it.

A reflection by Sophia Agtarap

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Sophia Agtarap serves as Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church with United Methodist Communications, and is a candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church through the Pacific Northwest Conference. She spends lots of time musing and crafting stories of and for the church over a good cup of coffee. Sophia tweets @SophiaKris. She also blogs at wanderingnotlost.com

 

1st Day of Christmas: A New Pledge of Allegiance – Isaiah 9:2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased their joy; they rejoice before you as with the joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.

For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the trampling warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his Kingdom.

After more than a month of rushing around like crazy people, buying gifts for our loved ones, our colleagues, our pets–after our marathon run to shopping centers, continuously investing ourselves in the world’s version of Christmas, sometimes we get to the end and wonder how we lost ourselves once again.

After the frenzy of the shopping season and the hustle and bustle of all the ways we celebrate Christmas, after opening our gifts on Christmas Day, we sometimes sit in silence and wonder why we worked ourselves up into a frenzy for something that ends so quickly.

At some point each year we realize all of the ways we got tricked once again by letting our culture tell us how to celebrate our Holy Days.

These words from Isaiah stun us into silence and make us feel a bit foolish.

This is no “Jesus is the reason for the season” message I’m bringing to you. I think that phrase is just as tired as the over-consumerism of Christmas. And dare I say, just as empty. These words from Isaiah teach us something different about our faith than any bullshit rhyming bumper sticker phrase out there.

His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.

These words from the prophet Isaiah tell us about a new order among the people. They are a desperate shout through the ages, and they tell us about the real meaning of Christmas, that light will one day chase out darkness—that meaning will one day replace meaninglessness.

Christmas according to Isaiah is about the ever-present hope for a Messiah to come and invade the world with new purpose and direction—to come and occupy this world with the divine peace and justice it so desperately needs.

Isaiah hoped for a new order for our world, and his hope is one that echoes through the ages and still has the power to cut through the gift wrapping paper-thin veneer of an over-commercialized Christmas.

These words from the prophet Isaiah urge us to shift our perspective and to open our eyes. They are words that tell of a coming light—a light that chases out the dark, that show us the way out of our meaninglessness, that reveals to us the One who has come to teach us allegiance to a new order for our lives.

This Christmas, the coming of our King means that we are invited to turn away from the noisy promises and promise-makers that have invaded both our Christmas celebrations and the world in which we live, and instead pledge our allegiance to the One who offers us our greatest promise.

Merry Christmas to all!

A reflection by Pat Ryan

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Pat is a candidate for ministry in the PC(USA) and is ready for a call. He tweets at @writingpat. You can see where Pat blogs at his about.me page.

Christmas Eve: Christmas is funny

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When I was a kid, my parents had an illuminated, blow-mold, plastic plug-in nativity set. Perhaps you recognize Mary’s shell-shocked expression (which I always though apt for a virgin who had just given birth), or Joseph’s daringly pink sash, or the baby Jesus’ odd, mid-ab-workout posture from the 90’s neighborhood you called home. They are truly a testament to the indescribable love of God showing up in our midst, don’t you think?

We would tuck ours in the rose garden, where they were visible from the street, but also capable of being secured by chains lest anyone consider stealing our joy. After a streak of vandalism in the neighborhood, my parents decided the best place to display the glory of the electric Emmanuel was on the roof, well beyond the reach of any who would cause harm to the Holy Family.

(That’s right – we had an electric nativity on the roof. Because we’re classy.)

My father had a system: he would tie a rope around a figurine’s waist, then take the end with him up the ladder to the roof, and raise them up, hand-over-hand. This worked okay for Mary and Joseph, but the unfortunate thing about the baby Jesus was that there weren’t a lot of places to tie the rope. One year, having gained a reprieve from dusting glass ornaments inside with my mother, I walked out of the house to help my father.

Unfortunately, my timing was poor, and I came face to face with Jesus’ somewhat bemused expression as he was hung by the neck from the eves of our home! I was so shocked I gasped, accidentally startling my father, who dropped Jesus’ noose. The precious infant crashed to the ground amid the bellows from the roof and my helpless laughter. We were relieved when we plugged him in and found his light had not been damaged in his tumble…

Christmas is funny.

Think about it: it involves all of the most colorful characters in your life gathering together, sometimes bellowing and sometimes laughing. If we could step back, it might make a good sitcom, but when you’re in the middle of it, it can range from painful to perfect and back again in a blink. You put out the decorations, you string the lights, you clean up and dress up and cook up a feast, but it’s still just people. We, the people God loves: loving and lovable, and also flawed, insulting, intolerant, cranky, anal retentive, lazy, passive, aggressive, passive aggressive, ignorant, idealistic, neurotic, superior, meddlesome, stubborn, self-righteous, and simply stressed. The ones who lock him into whatever box seems safest, and those who string him up in the process of their well-meaning worship.

Us.

This is the world Jesus was born into, and we are the people for whom God showed up. This Christmas we may be tempted to prettify that message and dress it up in all the best trappings we can think of, but I hope we are willing to simply tell the story and let Christ speak for himself. I would hate it if we locked down or strung up Jesus in the process of sharing the good news, like my well-meaning family with their synthetic stable scene.

The good news is that, as many times as we mess up Christmas, Jesus keeps showing up. As many times as we drop the ball (or baby, in this case), that light still keeps shining. Maybe he is still hoping we’ll get a glimpse of the kin-dom in the middle of the chaos, despite the chains we put around it to hold it down, or the ropes we use to heave it to whatever height we think it deserves. Maybe he is still hoping that just maybe, we’ll give him what he actually cares about for his birthday. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll love the world in all its messy brokenness, too. Maybe we’ll forgive the someone who knows all the right buttons to push to get a rise out of us, and maybe we’ll care more for someone else’s need than our own wants, and maybe we’ll find a way to speak a word of truth and grace to someone who desperately needs it. Because the irony of Christmas is that you have the opportunity to be the very presence of Christ we have been waiting for so long. The way you love may be how someone else experiences this beloved baby’s birth.

Christmas is funny like that.

A reflection by Kris Marshall

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Kris is the Associate Pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Rosa, California. Kris tweets at @revkris. You can also subscribe to her weekly sermon podcast.

22nd Day of Advent: The House Lights Go Off

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The house lights go off and the footlights come on. Even the chattiest stop chattering as they wait in darkness for the curtain to rise. In the orchestra pit, the violin bows are poised. The conductor has raised his baton. In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You walk up the steps to the front door. The empty windows at either side of it tell you nothing, or almost nothing. For a second you catch a whiff of some fragrance that reminds you of a place you’ve never been and a time you have no words for. You are aware of the beating of your heart…The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.

— Frederick Buechner

21st Day of Advent: Messiah II – Zephaniah 3:14-20

Ah, soiled, oppressing city! It has listened to no voice; it has accepted no correction. It has not trusted in the Lord; it has not drawn near to its God.

The officials within it are roaring lions; its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning. Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons; its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.

The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong. Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail; but the unjust knows no shame. – Zephaniah 3:1-5

Zephaniah understands 21st century Jerusalem perfectly. Verse 2 hits with a special resonance. Cast against the backdrop of Advent, I cannot help but think about what Israel, past and present, wanted from a Messiah. That Messiah is the consummation of the power-cycle, where Israel dominates as it has been dominated. Do you feel me yet? That Messiah is the leather belt in the hand of the abused, becoming the abuser. Sometimes, I fear that those who speak triumphantly of the second-coming are tapping into the same perverse hope, bringing Christianity into the cycle: illusions of grandeur, by any means necessary. Christian Zionism, the self-fulfilling prophesy-effects, the inevitable fall.

I visited the Mount of Temptation this week and remembered Luke chapter 4. As much as I think the Messiah concept was a show of human perverseness, God’s prevenient grace was at work from the cave in Bethlehem to the one in Jericho where our teacher, Jesus, was raised to take over that prophesy and use it for God’s perfect purposes. The Adversary came from the depths of, perhaps, Christ’s own mind, and tempted him to be the Messiah that was wanted instead of the Messiah that was needed. Jesus refused to consummate the cycle: He broke the cycle! God redeemed our hopes with a better vision. He is immaculate.

3:18-19 remain a beautiful possibility to this day.

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all of your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

God promises to deal harshly with the oppressors and to save the weak and helpless ones–I think we can lend a hand. Are not our oppressors, on some level, also weak and helpless? Here are promises to gather those who are chased away, giving glory and fame to the exiles, restoring the name of these people. It’s easy to fall into the trite interpretation that the nation of Israel is permanently in exile, in need of restoration, but what if Israel’s name could be restored by breaking free from the drunkenness of perpetual victimhood? What if Israel regained its honor not by expecting to be restored but by restoring those they have exiled?

Whether oppressed or oppressor, we do find a metaphor for ‘self’ in Israel. How can we free ourselves by freeing others? I know one Jew who dared to take collective responsibility and refused to continue the cycle–even under the condition of Roman occupation.

Jesus’s vision was not a campaign to end his oppressor but a ministry against oppression itself. When so many in his audience wanted their problems to be manifest in foreign armies who could be slain, Jesus was able to see beyond those misconceptions of ‘other’ and understand that the true adversary was within, to be defeated by self-death.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

20th Day of Advent: Pasted-on Smiles and Half-Hearted Merry Christmases – A Reflection on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the LORD.
— Zephaniah 3:14-20

For some, Christmas is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The time spent with family and friends singing carols, giving gifts, baking cookies, trimming trees, and celebrating the birth of a tiny baby thousands of years ago. For others the pressure of the season, the expectation of joy is a burden too heavy to bear. Too heavy to muster up that illusion of happiness. For some, the year prior had produced too much brokenness, so feigning happiness during Christmas becomes an exercise of pasted-on smiles and half-hearted Merry Christmases.

Wednesday saw a report of a suicide/homicide in New Jersey, where a mother set her home on fire and closed herself and her three year old son in her bedroom while the house burned around them. There are stories like this all around the country.

Something in people snaps during this season and the pressure to be happy and filled with Christmas cheer becomes too much. And unfortunately we are too busy or too intimated to help these people who are hurting and to walk beside them when they need us most.

I’ve been thinking about this woman today. What was going on in her life where she thought suicide was her only way out? Did she lose her job and feel hopeless in our down-turned economy? Had her husband left her or passed away months earlier? Had she been battling depression for years and this year was the last straw? I have no idea. But for many, the Christmas season is not a time of joy, and we often do not know how to sit with others in the midst of their struggles. This is especially true when we may be caught up in the joy of the season.

However, as Christians, we have good news to share. Perhaps more now than ever, people need to hear this good news that God has come among us to bring about restoration to the world. To bring us love, hope, peace, and joy. The world is a dark and broken place, but God dwells with us in the midst of a broken and hurting world. And as Christ’s followers we should be this same presence to others.

There are people all around us who are hurting. They have pasted-on smiles and are half-heartedly wishing us a Merry Christmas. Will we look beyond the veneer of holiday cheer? Will we be bold and patient enough to sit with others in the midst of dark times? Will we be there to guide them to the true advent light–Jesus, the light of the world. Will we show them that there is a Comforter and Restorer who walks with them, who is offering them joy this Christmas?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

19th Day of Advent: Advent and the Holocaust – Reflections on Luke 3

Female prisoners at forced labor digging trenches at the Ravensbrueck concentration camp. This photograph is from the SS-Propaganda-Album des Frauen-KZ-Ravensbrueck 1940-1941. USHMM (18344), courtesy of Lydia Chagoll.

Advent and the Holocaust don’t normally get put together. However, I figured writing on the eve of the winter solstice (aka the longest night) and the Mayan apocalypse (aka the end of the world), Holocaust imagery might just be appropriate.

Advent and the Holocaust overlap more that you first might think. The story of Jews waiting, longing, hoping, traveling, being housed in deplorable conditions. Will a savior come? It doesn’t seem so as Herod and Hitler massacre innocent children. Murder. Hopelessness. Hate. Fear. A far cry from the peace, hope, love, and joy candles we light on our advent wreath in worship.

Every generation thinks they have it worse than the one before, but the unrest the Christ was born into was a world headed for a spiritual cliff just as much, if not more, than our world today. Those in power are neglecting and causing harm, and so John the Baptist holds a press conference to tell it like it is:

John said to the crowds… …bear fruits worthy of repentance… …Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation… …John 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. His 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.  – Luke 3

When we read this text, and think about the massacre last week or the one long ago in Germany, it seems as though John got it all wrong. He said the bad fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire, not innocent children. Where in the hell is God in all of this? Why is evil still winning?

The following prayer was found at Ravensbruck death camp where 92,000 women and children died.  It was scrawled on a piece of paper near a dead girl. (It is also the text used in a single by Jennifer Knapp for the Martyr Project.)

Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will also those of ill will.  But do not only remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness.

Just like Advent again, in the midst of all these questions and feelings of abandonment by God, a child shall lead us. This child’s prayer are Word made flesh:

In our suffering, remember all of your children, even those who turn on the gas chamber or trigger a semi automatic rifle. May the fruits we have borne in this suffering—may they be their forgiveness.

Sounds a lot like something Jesus would say. Fruit borne in suffering for the forgiveness of sins. Wine poured out for the forgiveness of all. The Christ becoming flesh in the words of that little Jewish girl.

Where the hell is God in all this evil? God is right there in the thick of hell; love conquering death. John tells us, God’s answer to unimaginable evil is Immanuel—God with us. God’s plan is incarnation—taking on flesh and suffering. And fiery furnaces, intended as evil, are transformed into baptism by fire—God claiming all as God’s children and calling us to bear fruit… that is how the evil in this world is destroyed.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

18th Day of Advent: Joy – A Reflection on Philippians 4:4-7

Farewell, Greetings, Rejoice, Be Glad, Delight! One Greek word so many meanings, yet they are all connected–especially on this Advent journey we’re taking.

So often we take the idea of rejoicing as a happy term. Yet it has a salutation or a valediction that brings with it more depth–the depth of distance. Joy is not just a momentary emotion, but one built around a journey and a larger, longer connection between the parties involved. We are not called to simply celebrate God being God, but to remember the journeys we have been on and the life we share with God.

That greeting–that connection of joy–is not because we’re promised all we could ever desire or because God makes us happy and gives us reason to celebrate, but because of all the emotions we’ve experienced in our past in our relationship with God. It is that depth of emotion that causes us to say so many of those terms mentioned at the start of this reflection.

We express meaningful greetings and farewells with those who know us deeply and who we know deeply. We ask those closest to us to help us when we’re in need and worried. It is with this same sense of deep, longing joy that we speak to God.

It’s like a letter full of jokes, stories, and memories sent with a deep-seated need to tell someone about what is most important to you at this very moment. This is prayer, and it is the joy of our relationship with God. We don’t just ask, but we share. And the response is not a check in the mail or having everything fixed as we would like it. Like those letters sent to the ones who know us best and care for us most, what is most important is the peace that we receive.

The peace of closeness and connection, the peace of knowing that we are known fully and cared for beyond anything we can understand. And at the end of the day, that is Joy.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

Adj Williams

Adj is the Director of Educational Ministries at Harbor View Presbyterian Church. Adj tweets at @keepsetting and blogs at http://keepsetting.blogspot.com