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

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.

12th Day of Advent: A Very Mumford Advent – Luke 4:18-19

In Advent we reflect on two realities. We remember the anticipation of the first coming of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus. However, at the same time, we also anticipate the second coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of his Kingdom here on earth. When Jesus began his ministry, he began with these words from Luke, chapter 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

This is what Christmas is! It’s not about a cute baby in a wooden manger, or tinsel trimmed-trees, or eggnog and Christmas cookies. It is the God of love breaking into our world–breaking into our humanity–and living among us. It is about this God of love coming to set us free. Jesus was born to die. Jesus was born to set us free.

And when I hear Mumford and Sons sing in their song “Sigh No More”,

Love–it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
it will set you free, be more like the man you were made to be.

I think to myself, this is what the Christian life is really about. This is what Jesus’ life here on earth is about. This is what Christmas is really about. When we invite Christ into our lives–when we allow him to work–we become all that God made us to be. We are set free from our sins and from the things that ensnare us and hold us in bondage. And that only happens through the love of God at work in our lives.

But it does not stop there.

This love. This God living among us. This freedom.

It is not meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared. And Mumford and Sons sings of this eloquently in Awake My Soul:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

So where will you invest your love this Christmas?

Will you invest it in the rush of the season, the giving of gifts, the baking of yet another dozen cookies?

Or will you invest it in something more–in something that lasts? Will you share with others the real joy and meaning of Christmas?

Will you take time to experience this for yourself, once again?

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

11th day of Advent: John and Oscar – Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

In the third year of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when generals were ruling over El Salvador, and rebels (armed by the US) were planning a coup, and priests who stood with the poor were called terrorists and communists, the word of God came to Bishop Oscar Romero in the wilderness of a civil war.

Both Oscar and John the Baptist spoke an unpopular truth that upset those in power.  In the scripture above, Luke didn’t just throw in all those hard to pronounce names to try and stump the scripture reader. He was framing the world into which this prophet John was preparing the way. In the midst of these oppressive leaders, John was not only speaking words about the change he knew was coming, but he being those words made flesh. John’s weapon of choice was the waters of Baptism; Romero used the bread and the cup.

Romero went into the town square, proclaiming that God was present with the poor, calling on the government and church to repent, and he served the bread and cup as the ultimate protest against the oppression of the poor. Romero knew that the body and blood, when embodied by the people, empowered them to make paths straight, fill valleys, lower mountains and hills, and smooth over rough places… how? Romero believed that God was present in the bread and cup, was present in the poor themselves, and that all flesh would see the salvation of God.

Said another way, Romero framed the plight of a people being oppressed with the perspective of a Christ who suffered and died and defeated death. Romero could confidently serve the bread and cup in defiance of those standing around them with guns pointed because he knew how the story ends: all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Do not be confused… this is not a “it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth because everything will be okay in heaven” theology. This is the theology or life perspective of “I know how this is all going to end—love defeats death—so I am going to live then ending now. I am not only going to speak words about the change I know is coming, but I am going to be those words made flesh.”

In the words of Oscar Romero:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.

Again, don’t be confused… this is not a history lesson about events that happened over 30 years ago. This is as true today as it was then. Advent is not all love, peace, joy, and candles on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a chance again to prepare for the persecution that is coming when we welcome this revolutionary, table turning, bread and cup-serving Christ child into our lives again.

There is no real peace without justice. Oscar and John stood up to corrupt governments and churches that preached “peace” that was dependent on the oppression of the poor and the silence of mass graves. “Peace” was maintained by the US-assisted Salvadorian government through kidnapping, torturing, and killing those who preached about what real peace looked like.

In Romero’s words:

It is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

Sounds a lot like today. We hear propaganda like “freedom isn’t free”, while those who speak about what real freedom and peace look like are condemned as troublemakers and sometimes terrorists. Many of our churches that are “thriving” are maintaining their growth on the backs of the poor—proclaiming “peace” where there is no justice, while those who stand with the poor are sacrificed by those same churches in order to maintain that “peace”.

But the hope we find in this Advent time of waiting and preparing can be found in the very words made flesh by John and Oscar:

John the Baptist quoting Isaiah:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Bishop Oscar Romero blessing the bread and cup:

We receive here the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people.

Immediately after speaking these words, Romero was shot dead by the government; John the Baptist was eventually beheaded by the government. They were both guilty of speaking truth to those in power, telling the oppressed something the powerful didn’t want them to hear:

Freedom is free.

Real peace is only possible with justice.

Love conquers death.

And this was all made flesh by a little baby whose blood would be the seed of freedom.

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

10th Day of Advent: What Is Love? – Luke 1:68-79

What is Love?

In our current society, we have moved to a place where romantic love trumps everything and is the reason most marry or enter into relationships. We also have decided that when talking about how we should interact with others that it is the correct word to use, but often we use it as a synonym for respect, or to recognize each other’s mutual humanity. None of these things are in essence wrong, they’re just different ways we understand this word called love–the hardest of terms–especially when it comes to being loved by a God who creates and calls us while also giving us freedom within the created world.

Love becomes even harder to understand when it seems that a God who has that much power leaves us seemingly vulnerable and weak. What kind of love is it that allows for abuse, inequality, crippling poverty, hate, and so many things that harm the very people created in your image, God?

It is in these desperate places that people will act out of their desperation for those they care for. God shows us love through desperate actions. God’s love is the love of promise. A promise is a desperate act, an act that says “I want you to know that not only do I care about you, but I also hear what is important to you, and I will do everything I can to make that happen.” God is a God of desperate love and promises. Thus God is always for those who have nothing but their desperation and their word.

For them, and thus for us all, God will see the promise through: that we will find a new dawn breaking that brings with it light for those in darkness and in the shadow of death. A promise that God will grant a way of peace for us all.

Yet we are not just those who are given that promise. We are participants in that promise–joining in the work, joining in God’s desperation, joining in the promise-making.

We are, as John the baptizer was, sent ahead to prepare the way, to give knowledge, to forgive, to move, to act, to promise, to love.

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

6th Day of Advent: Re-tune My Heart

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There are a lot of moments when I am acutely aware of my own inadequacy. I feel the people I minister with have over-estimated me. Don’t they know I am under-qualified to convey these monumental and intensely intimate ideas to my self, my congregation and my culture? How could I ever fully explain that our God loves us and moves into our broken hearts, neighborhoods and nations? I am at a loss.

I want so desperately to do justice to this good news, I mire my soul in well-meaning
action, but it never seems to be enough. I don’t need recognition or glory. Hell, I’ll even
do without sleep. Just one more article, one more sermon, one more visit, one more
call, one more meeting, one more event, one more prayer, one more project, one
more rehearsal, one more hour, one more day…

The trouble is, in so doing, I may instead express a taskmaster God who drives me
to distracted exhaustion. And I spend so much time communicating, conveying,
counseling, and corralling people that I am shocked and embarrassed to find myself
on empty. At the end of the day, I find myself alone and wondering if this good news
is only for other people. When will it be for me?

Maybe after I finish the next thing.

I suspect God is not interested in making me busier but better: to once again infuse
and transform my life, if I’d slow down long enough to let it happen. Advent reminds
me that God can lovingly re-tune even my easily distracted heart to the kingdom of
God, and fill even my mediocre offering with joy, peace, hope, and love.

In rough-edged wind,
edge of town,
end of day,
light all used up,
a shed waits, still,
dust settling,
shadows
bedding down for the night,
doors resting on their hinges.
You want to say it’s empty,
but it’s full—
full of silence, of longing,
of waiting,
full of God’s hopes,
full of space for a birthing.

The passion that makes worlds
is still dreaming.
This stable is made of that,
the manger carved, through eons,
of your deepest ache,
this empty space,
this womb,
created by your soul, unerring,
leaning toward that realm.

Enlarge its longing in you.
Breathe in.
Let the cupped hands of the manger
hold your heart open
with God’s deepest desires.
The angel song that sounds like sorrow
but feels like joy,
the harmony of longing and confidence,
swells in the waiting silence,
wondering.

Warm wind
blows in through the window.

—Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Unfolding Light” (unfoldinglight.net)

May you stand still enough to feel God’s wind (tee hee).

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.