11th Day of Christmas: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 and Ecclesiastes 3:1-13

Things don’t just happen in a vacuum. The Magi don’t come to Jesus without causing a stir, and Samuel doesn’t become, well, Samuel without a mother.

Of course Samuel’s mother is keeping her promise at all costs. A son she sees growing up but once a year, not the joy of many mothers I know, but she made a promise, and she will keep it.

Of course the Magi also agreed (implicitly if not explicitly) to tell Herod about where they found the baby. And they justifiably didn’t.

For everything there is a season, even a time to do the “wrong” thing. Samuel grows up well because of the care of others. Jesus grows up because of the watchful protection like that given by the Magi. It is not WHAT people do in either of these stories, but why they do it. They do what they discern is right regardless of the expectations of others.

The idea that there is one way to live this life is one of the biggest fictions in our lives. The faithful life we are called to is one of constant discernment–one where we cannot know what is coming or how what has come truly affects us or the world.

When the writer of Ecclesiastes says to enjoy and take pleasure in all of our living, there is the underlying theme of not trying to be perfect, not trying to not do things exactly according to the rules, but rather to do things as faithfully as possible, realizing that sometimes the hard decisions don’t have right answers and sometimes things just aren’t going to make sense.

But when we follow the star, when we follow our deepest desires and seek that which God has placed within us, we will do what we can to find the Kingdom on earth. And that is something always in season.

A reflection by Adj Williams.

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

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9th Day of Christmas: Unfolding – Luke 2:21-33

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Simeon opened his eyes and all he saw was darkness. He woke up every morning at the same time for as long as he could remember. He unfolded his blanket away from his frail body and slowly made his way out of bed. Every morning, it took him longer to get to his feet than the one before. He wondered how many more mornings he had in left him. Simeon was now an old man who long ago made peace with God and with death. He had lived a long and full life, and now he was ready for it to come to an end.

Simeon was a patient man; faithful too. God’s Spirit had come to him and told him that he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah. God had told Simeon that the one who would come to redeem Israel was on the way. God would send a savior to the world who would deliver the people from their hardship and comfort their restlessness.

But God had told him this a while ago. Simeon had been waiting years.

Simeon wondered, just like he did every day, whether today would be the day. God’s window of opportunity was, frankly, getting smaller. Simeon was somewhere in his eighties, and his body never let him forget that. He slipped on his robes and stepped outside.  It was morning in Jerusalem, but the sun’s rays had not yet stretched over the hills.

Simeon breathed in deeply. Mornings were his favorite part of the day. He wrapped the scarf around his head just a little tighter, and he began his daily journey to the Temple. There was a chill in the air that Simeon loved. The cool air invigorated him and helped him forget his own weariness—this day-after-day vigilance. God had blessed Simeon with a great promise, one he was humbled to receive, but, to be honest, waiting this long for God to deliver on this promise was stressful for him. Plus, he wondered how he would know what to look for. Simeon had no idea what a messiah looked like. He had a hard time trusting that one day he would just stumble upon a messiah unwittingly. How would this unfold? What if he missed it? What if he already had?

Simeon had decided that God uses us in ways that surpass even our own understanding, but still God needs us to pay attention. “Simeon” was an old name that means “he who hears”. He was a vigilant man. His eyes and ears were wide open, so that he was better able to see and hear what God was doing right in front of him.

Simeon listened closely, he looked around.

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.

8th Day of Christmas: Happy New Year!

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In my tradition, we actually celebrate Hogmanay. It’s a word of nebulous origins from a Scottish culture that is the mixing pot of many differing traditions. Scots celebrate the last day of the year instead of the first (although the party usually lasts well into New Year’s Day). It’s an unusual celebration: you spend the whole day cleaning house, clearing debts, and putting your life in order. Then, when everything is perfect, you indulge in some of the more popular vices until the sun comes up. It’s good luck if the first visitor of the new year is a man with dark hair (because watch out for those bloody blonde Vikings), and it’s better if he brings shortbread (but life is always better with shortbread). Then in Scotland, January 1 and 2 are both holidays, to help you recover from the bender you’ve just been on.

I just like that image – get everything ready so we can mess it up all over again!

I feel like every day could be Hogmanay. Every day I try to put my life in order, and every day I inevitably mess something up. It’s not because I’m less competent or considerate than other people; I’m just human. I can make all the resolutions I want, and I may even keep some of them. And even if I can see improvement over time, even if I am becoming a more gracious and loving person, even if I manage my life with aplomb and my family with care, even if I excel at my job and receive the praise of wise people and the love of fools, I will probably fail again.

Today I give thanks for a God who plucks me out of the dirt when I fall down, helps me dust myself off, and then keeps letting me do my thing… even if it is inevitable I will fall down again. I learn things down there in that dust, things that the clearer air at eye level clouds up. I learn about my humanity, about compassion, about forgiveness. I learn about injustice. I learn about consequences and restoration. I learn about mercy and grace. I learn what is important to take seriously and what is less important to take seriously. These dusty life lessons have served me well.

So Happy New Year, and Happy Hogmanay.

Here is a blessing. I was looking for a way to say this… and then Steve Garnaas-Holmes said it better. If you are looking for a devotional blog to continue reading after this time in #getanupperroom has passed, I can’t recommend his Unfolding Light blog highly enough.

New Year Blessing

In the new year I do not wish for you
that God will bless you,
since God already intends
only the deepest blessings for you.
I don’t wish that good things will happen to you,
since I don’t know
what will most beautifully shape your soul—
in what losses you will receive grace,
in what challenges you will gain wisdom,
in what struggles you will become more truly yourself.

Instead I hope for you this blessing:
that your heart be at peace,
that your mind be open
and you will be lovingly present;
that you live each day this year with love, courage and beauty,
with gentleness, trust and gratitude.
That you speak and be the truth,
that you find joy and wonder in your life,
that you be deeply mindful
of God’s indwelling presence–
God’s deep delight in accompanying you
in every breath.

May your work be fruitful,
your hope vibrant,
your voice clear,
and your friends faithful.

Whether you feel it or not,
deep blessing will be yours this year.
May you know it, and rejoice,
and live in harmony with God’s grace.

Copyright © Steve Garnaas-Holmes, 2011
Unfolding Light
http://www.unfoldinglight.net

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.

7th Day of Christmas: Show-Down – Matthew 25:31-46

I have heard of Messianic Jews who helped sneak supplies into Bethlehem during the second-Intifada siege. The only Messianic Jew I met was a shell-games tour-guide who was recruited as ‘balance’ for my boss’s speech in West Jerusalem. He kept insisting that my boss go first, who in-turn insisted that he go first until Zoughbi finally agreed to go first.

Z told my favorite story, about his daughter confronting the soldiers during the siege and how her older cousin yelled at her to stand-down and go inside. Later, as he apologized to the tearful little girl, she was heard to have said, “sorry is not enough: I need chocolate!” Z was making a point about gestures of restitution as part of the reconciliation process.

This gentleman began to talk about how his father came to be a Messianic Jew but gradually outlined an identity completely composed of persecutions, of being defined ‘other’, and claiming a salvation made of injuries. Our ‘balance’ decided to make a point of saying that life is about persevering through “suffering, not about chocolate”. Z glanced at me and smirked. I was sorry that I had doubted his suspicions earlier, when I wanted to believe this ‘balance’ would be gracious.

Like many, I have been so naive as to expect graciousness rather than being gratefully amazed when I do (at times) see it from these characters. “They usually want to go first,” said Z, “so that they can leave before they have to listen to me.” What our ‘counterpart’ got from Christ’s ministry was part of a greater narrative of masochism. If it isn’t about how much one can succeed it is about how much they can suffer: me, myself, I.

His Messiah was made of suffering, with the promise of redemption in proportion. There is the fore-taste of substitutional atonement but even that quickly fades to older notions, after-tastes, of particularism in suffering as much as in being chosen, so that I felt sorry for this man because it seems as if his belief in Christ was based on his ability to reject any grace or blessing. Even less, to give graces or blessings. Suffering is one part of The Way but it is not the end-goal of The Way.

During the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience mentioned that they had visited a school and an orphanage earlier in the day and wondered what he thought they could do to benefit the children. Looking back, this was a perfect set-up. Our ‘balance’ offered that there was nothing to do but prepare them for the realities of a second-coming. I tapped Z on the elbow and asked him to let me rebut. I quoted the passage from Matthew, reminding them that they could
invest in ‘the least of these’, both financially and relationally, and continue their visits. For anyone who knows Christ as a teacher, not just a body bleeding on a piece of wood, it was obvious. If you have chocolate to give, share the chocolate together. Find Jesus in the way we heal and are healed.

“I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” Paraphrased: I was pouty and you gave me chocolate. Grace.

If we look for our Messiah on a cross or in a manger, we will find only places he has been. He told us himself he would be in ‘the least of these’ whenever they were in need. As for those Jews who smuggled in supplies when my Palestinian friends needed them, I think they might find the same Lord I do. I wish the best chocolates upon them.

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

6th Day of Christmas: Emmanuel

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Christmas is not just Mr. Pickwick dancing a reel with the old lady at Dingley Dell or Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth that it is often reduced to so that people of many faiths or no faith can exchange Christmas cards without a qualm.

On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell. Emmanuel, which is Hebrew for “God with us.” That’s where the problem lies.

The claim that Christianity makes for Christmas is that at a particular time and place “the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity” came to be with us himself. When Quirinius was governor of Syria, in a town called Bethlehem, a child was born who, beyond the power of anyone to account for, was the high and lofty One made low and helpless. The One whom none can look upon and live is delivered in a stable under the soft, indifferent gaze of cattle. The Father of all mercies puts himself at our mercy. Year after year the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stops to listen.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. A dream as old as time. If it is true, it is the chief of all truths. If it is not true, it is of all truths the one that people would most have be true if they could make it so.

Maybe it is that longing to have it be true that is at the bottom even of the whole vast Christmas industry the tons of cards and presents and fancy food, the plastic figures kneeling on the floodlit lawns of poorly attended churches. The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.

Emmanuel. We all must decide for ourselves whether it is true. Certainly the grounds on which to dismiss it are not hard to find. Christmas is commercialism. It is a pain in the neck. It is sentimentality.

It is wishful thinking. The shepherds. The star. The three wise men. Make believe.

Yet it is never as easy to get rid of as all this makes it sound. To dismiss Christmas is for most of us to dismiss part of ourselves. It is to dismiss one of the most fragile yet enduring visions of our own childhood and of the child that continues to exist in all of us. The sense of mystery and wonderment. The sense that on this one day each year two plus two adds up not to four but to a million.

What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hopes is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.

Emmanuel. Emmanuel.

— Frederick Buechner

5th Day of Christmas: A Gift that Doesn’t Need Returning

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.

Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-1

Christmas day has come and gone. The gifts have been opened. The cookies have been eaten. The carols have been sung. Radio stations have stopped playing Christmas music. Christmas movies on the TV are dwindling. Now comes the returns. Oh the returns! There are several times of year I don’t go shopping: Black Friday, Christmas Eve, and the day after Christmas. Really the next several days after Christmas.

There is something depressing about the fact that as soon as the stores open the day after Christmas, the lines to return those gifts were as long as they were to buy them. It’s a vicious cycle. And one I would rather not participate in. The long lines to return movies we already own, clothes that are the wrong size or not our style, and that strange gadget from our crazy uncle. We spend as much time buying gifts as we do returning them. All in the name of Christmas and exchanging presents with those close to us.

What if we chose to celebrate Christmas differently? To not get sucked into the cultural expectations of gift giving and gift returning and gift exchanging. I’m not talking about having a Buy Nothing Christmas or giving homemade gifts (which are both fantastic ideas, by the way). I’m talking about something that lasts even longer. Instead of focusing on shopping for sweaters that will be returned or shoes that will be out of style in a year, there is something more we can focus on during Christmas.

In Colossians, Paul encourages us to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” That is something that we can wear all year around. It doesn’t go out of style. It’s never the wrong size or the wrong color.

What would it look like if the gift we gave to each other and to world was compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience?

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

4th Day of Christmas: Childermas

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” — Matthew 2:16-18shoes

Today is Childermas. You might not have heard of it. My spellcheck hasn’t. The story goes like this: There were rumors that a king had been born that was a threat to those in power. So, Herod sent and slew all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or under. He had intended to include the Son of God among the murdered babies. In Roman Catholic mass today, on this 4th day of Christmas, no Gloria in Excelsis or Alleluias are spoken.

Like an anniversary of The Holocaust, 9/11, or an elementary school slaughtering, today is a somber day of remembrance of a genocide. A day we remember the wailings of mothers and fathers whose toddlers were murdered by Herod, out of fear of a baby named Jesus. These same mothers and fathers remembered the wailings of mothers and fathers before them whose toddlers were murdered by Pharaoh, out of fear of a baby named Moses.

Mass killings of innocent children are nothing new, and yet it doesn’t hurt any less. In the week following Sandy Hook we paused to remember, but collectively we seem to stop mourning after a week, for fear of becoming numb.

We must find ways to remember.

Every hour there is another Sandy Hook in the world. Every hour 30 innocent children die of AIDS—deaths preventable by medication. Our news cycle doesn’t spend much time covering this epidemic, out of fear of a drop in ratings.

We must find ways to remember.

Since 2001, it is estimated by different studies that more than 60,000 innocent children have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless other countries can tally up even higher numbers of children that were killed with weapons bought with our tax dollars or who have simply disappeared under the watch of regimes the United States put in power.

We must find ways to remember.

It is estimated that 40% of lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and queer youth have attempted suicide, making suicide one of the main causes of death among LGBTQ 15 to 24 year olds. The complacency of our government, our churches, and our own fear about sexuality is killing our children.

We must find ways to remember.

There is a mass for that—Merry Childrermas.

One: Enraged, Herod put to death many male children

Many: In Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David.

One: Let us pray. O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents this day proclaimed not by speaking but by dying, put to death all vices within us, that Thy faith which our tongues profess, our lives also by their actions may declare.

Many: Amen.

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