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.

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.

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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

14th Day of Advent: In the Middle of Our Mess

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You may not think this post is very Christmassy.

I woke up Friday morning, as many of you did, to news of a shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut. It was joined later in the day by reports of a mass stabbing at an elementary school in China.

The Twitterverse raged with visceral grief for the families, anger at the shooter, shock and horror at a kind of tragedy that is becoming all too familiar, conspiracy theories about whichever particular political party or organization is to blame, opinions about how to fix it all, outrage at the media’s tactics, fear for the soul of our society, and gratitude for the safety of their own families. Some urged prayer; others, judgment; others, action; others, legislation. I confess to running in all of these directions at once.

No, not very Christmassy.

I had planned to tell you a story from my childhood that illustrated in a humorous way the central point of Advent. The story I’ll keep, but the point is still appropriate: Advent is trusting Christ to show up in the middle of our mess. Today, when we see violence up close and personal committed against the vulnerable in our society, we don’t need to be reminded just how messy humanity can be.

This most recent shooting is the 31st school shooting since Columbine. There have been more victims of violence in other mass shootings in workplaces, public centers and houses of worship. Every year in the US alone, there are over 100,000 victims of gun violence; nearly a third of these shootings are fatal. That’s about 266 people shot every day, and 86 fatalities (according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). Not to mention victims of other kinds of weapon-related violence. We could pile it on: domestic abuse, psychological abuse, hunger, poverty, sexual assault, and oh, so much more.

What a mess. But it’s Advent. And Advent is trusting Christ to show up in the middle of our mess. So where is Christ?

The Apostle Paul compared the church, the followers of Jesus, to the body of Christ. In other words, people experience Christ through the ones who claim to follow his teachings. When we follow Jesus into the mess, Christmas happens. When we trust that God’s kin-dom offers a better reality for all, and we choose to live into that reality now despite truly terrible circumstances, Christmas happens. When there is no theological easy answer, when the only thing that works is love and presence, Christmas happens.

It’s the only reason Christmas ever did.

It may not have the shine of tinsel or the cheer of a lustily sung carol, but Christmas happens when we follow Jesus into the mess and offer what hope, comfort, peace, grace, and joy we can. If you want to find Jesus this Christmas, just look for the nearest mess, and see who is quietly sweeping up the shattered lives and piecing them together again.

Pray for the people of Newtown and Chenpeng. Pray for the shattered families in their confusion and grief. Pray for the teachers, administrators, and students who survived as they cope with the trauma in the months to come. Pray for the first responders who are branded with these horrible images as they seek security and justice. Pray for the therapists, counselors, and pastors who will help people pick up the pieces of their lives and community. Pray for the shooter and all those so broken and damaged that violence becomes the only answer they see. Pray for our society, that through the lens of our broken hearts we may come to observe and confront the painful systemic injustices–and pray for the strength, courage, and wisdom to change them. Pray for the people of Newtown and Chenpeng.

Then, if you really want to experience Christmas, look for the nearest mess… and
grab a broom.

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.