12-30-16 - Power in the Name

Sunday we observe the Feast of the Holy Name, as it falls on a Sunday this year. And why is there a feast day dedicated not to a saint, not to a major event in Jesus’ life, but to his name? There is a biblical reason, and a theological one (beyond the fact that someone in the late 15th century thought we needed another festival... good for donations.)

We mark this occasion because Luke tells us it was significant. In keeping with the custom of the time – which continues in the Jewish community today: After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

The bris, or circumcision, was standard. What was unusual is that Jesus was named not for his father or an ancestor, but according to the instruction of an angelic messenger (Gabriel was specific with Zechariah and Elizabeth too, insisting that their baby was to be named John.) The name Jesus, or Y’shua, carried echoes of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible, who led the people of Israel into the promised land after their years in the wilderness. This Y'shua was to lead all of humankind from the greater wilderness of sin and rebellion into the promised land of eternal life.

And there is more to this feast day than marking that occasion, for the New Testament tells us that the name of Jesus itself carries power. When we utter someone’s name, we invoke their presence and power – and in some very real way, that happens when we proclaim the name of Jesus into situations where he is needed.

Jesus himself told his followers to use his name in prayer: “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John14:14) And in Acts 3, Peter and John cure a lame man simply by saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6). After this they explain to naysayers, “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong.“ (Acts 3:16)

There is power in the name of Jesus – the only power we need to wield against the force of evil, against the enemy of human nature. As the ancient hymn recorded in Philippians (also read this Sunday) asserts, “At the name of Jesus, every kneel shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

To some ancient peoples, knowing someone’s name of gave you power over them, access to them. Jesus has freely given us his name and said, “Use it.” We have access to the power that made the universe as we invoke the name of Jesus.

It’s up to us to use that privilege. When I am in crisis, injured or afraid, I instinctively say, “Jesus, be here now.” It’s become a default prayer. The next time you feel up against a challenge, or powerless in some situation, try using the gift given to you as a follower of Christ: the name of Jesus. He comes with it.

12-29-16 - Mary Pondered

How many times did she doubt during those months of pregnancy, wonder if she’d dreamt that story about the angel and his grand promises about the baby in her womb? But then, how did that baby get there? She would not have forgotten that.. And yes, there was confirmation when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and found the aged woman in the pink of pregnancy. But even that could be humanly possible… And then, to learn that Joseph had had dreams which matched what the angel had told her.

Even so, could this really be a movement of God, a movement to save the world, through her? That seemed too crazy to fathom. Until now. Until that gift had come to pass, that deliverer delivered from her own body, swaddled and laid to sleep in a feeding trough, the hay keeping him warm – and in burst a bunch of shepherds bearing tales of angelic visitations. And those words again, 
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."

A sign for the shepherds, yes, and also for Joseph and Mary. Luke tells us that, while the shepherds went out and spread the amazing story, “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

What did Mary ponder? Once, in prayer, I sensed an encounter with her, a gracious older woman in a blue-green knit turtleneck dress. She said a few things as I asked her questions: “I was not all that good or all that brave. I was a bit of a flirt in my day – and had a sharp tongue. I was funny. Boy, that grew me up in a hurry (Jesus’ birth, etc.) Oh, you can believe what you like about all the stories. I’ll just say, it was hard. It was rough. I felt very, very alone – didn’t know Joseph enough to trust him yet."

And the sword that the elder Simeon spoke of, when they presented Jesus in the temple? “A sword pierces the heart of every mother,” she said. “From the moment your child is born, he is moving toward independence, which is a kind of death for you. He is moving toward his death. “

She added, “I couldn’t worship him in life. How do you worship one whose diapers you’ve changed? No, he was always my son in this life. It wasn’t until after my death that I could worship him.” True for all of us, really...

Were Mary’s ponderings that different from those of any new mother? The stakes were higher, perhaps – but also the knowledge that, if this truly was a movement of God, then God would continue to be the mover. I hope she had that confidence, and that it bore her through the rough times.

I hope that for us, as well, as we bear Christ’s presence and light into this world. God will send signs for us, too.

12-28-16 - How'd We Hear This Story?

Almost every year, I see something new in this very old, very familiar Christmas story. This year it was a line about the shepherds, who felt compelled to check out the tale told them by the heavenly messengers that night of Jesus’ birth:

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.

“When they saw this, they made known…and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Who wouldn’t be amazed! It’s a great story, even filtered through centuries and translations; imagine hearing it from an eye-witness. That’s most likely how the narratives of Jesus’ birth came into circulation among his early followers.

Not all the gospels tell these stories – Mark either had not heard them, or considered them extraneous to the story of the ministry and passion of the grown-up Jesus. John goes waaaay back to the beginning of time to start his telling, skipping over the messy details of a human birth. Matthew tells the story from the perspective of Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, and includes the visitors from the East. It is Luke who writes of angels and prophecies, rulers and politics, a very human mother and father, a stable, a feed-trough – and those first witnesses, shepherds from the Judean hills.

How did Luke, the Hellenic follower of Christ, hear about those shepherds? Did Mary tell the tales later in life, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, living near Ephesus in the care of the disciple John? Or did folks hear them from the shepherds themselves,and pass along the tale, one person to another, one town to the next, perhaps embellishing but getting the main details right?

There are people who read about Jesus in the bible and in books and come to believe. But more often, faith is transmitted person-to-person, through stories of encounter. Our stories may not feel as dramatic as the one those shepherds must have told, but I bet each one of us has experienced God in some way that made a difference to us. Chances are, our stories will make a difference to other people with whom we choose to share them. Reactions might vary, but at the least we will provide one more data point that one day might tip the scales toward faith. We can never know what will happen, only that our God-stories come with an imperative to be shared.

When have you most recently or most vividly encountered the presence or peace or power of God? Bring that to mind. Who might want to hear that story? Whose might be amazed at what you make known to them of Jesus?

12-23-16 - Shepherds and Angels - and You

The stable wasn’t the only center of action that original Christmas - God had multiple locations in mind, and a bigger cast. The holy child birthed and swaddled, we fade out on the manger and shift focus to the fields outside Bethlehem, to a group of shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Flocks were precious assets, and nighttime perilous – predators, thieves, many dangers lurked in the dark.

Herding sheep was not a glamorous profession in Jesus’ time, if ever. Shepherds were considered the dregs of society, dirty, crude, unkempt, maybe the last ones on earth you’d think would be the first to hear world-transforming news. But our God of surprises doesn’t see in such categories. The least likely became the first – does that sound familiar?

And not only the first to hear; this earthy bunch were the recipients of a celestial visit, a host of angels. The highest possible order of being, shining with the glory of the Lord, and rough-hewn riff-raff, brought together on that bright hillside to share joy.

“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” 

Think God was up to something? Think God is still up to something? A bunch of folks from whom no one expected anything good were entrusted with the best news of all – the birth of the Messiah, a savior, the Lord. This revelation, backed up by the most amazing light show ever seen, became their news to tell. To be the bearer of news everyone wants to hear – that’s quite a status upgrade.

Of the many messages in this strange tale we tell over and over, here is one: no one, no kind of person, no category of person is insignificant in God’s eyes. In God’s Life the most marginalized – even the most objectionable – can become the center of the story. ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

Who is on the margins of your life, or your community’s life? Can you invite someone into the center? Can you honor the least likely person by entrusting him with this amazing news? Maybe you feel like you are the least likely person. Know this: God has chosen you to share God’s most precious gift. Wrap your mind around that while you’re wrapping presents.

For a little while that night, there was peace, there was joy, there was amazement and wonder, shared between shepherds and angels, earth and heaven. I pray that for us, as we hear or tell the Magnificent Story again tomorrow night, as we look for those at the edges and invite them into the center: Peace. Joy. Amazement. Wonder.

O come, let us adore him!

12-22-16 - A Child For Us

Abstract or concrete? Philosophy or story? How do you take your theology? Straight up or with a twist? The gospels are flexible enough to incorporate many learning styles.

On Christmas Eve, we will be steeped in story, personal and intimate, sweeping and glorious, each element a rich vein of symbol and language to speak of how much God loves us. But the way the Gospel of John tells the story, and the way the prophets foretell it can be more abstract.

John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” 

Right off the bat, we are invited to suspend our literal mindedness (“how can something be with God and be God?”) and enter a swirl of words that convey a truth. What does “Word” mean? Most likely “logos,” translated as “word,” means something closer to the “mind” or the “primal thought” of God. Does that make it more or less confusing?

That first paragraph tells the whole story – of what was before we were, of creation, of life and light, and light overcoming darkness. That is what is promised in the prophecy from Isaiah often read on Christmas: "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." 

This great light, the prophet says, will shake up the nations and put an end to war –
"For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire." 

And who will bring about this world transformation? A child. An infant with the weight of the world on his shoulders: 
"For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders..."

And from John again: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

This Son of God is a son given to us. Entrusted to humanity. Imagine.

The story of God, so far away, so holy, so “other,” moving into our neighborhood and settling down so that we can draw near – that’s a story that never gets old. It is hard to convey it as Good News to a people for whom it has become hum-drum, and to others for whom “God” is entirely irrelevant, but I believe it is the heart of the gift Christians have for the world. I will continue to try to get inside that mystery and discover the “Word made flesh” who wants to know me and be known by me.

However it is that you best comprehend the story of God’s amazing love and desire to be close to you, I hope you are both shaken and stirred.

12-21-16 - Getting to Bethlehem

Do you labor under the illusion of the “perfect Christmas?” All shopping/wrapping/baking/ decorating done, family gathered in harmonious conviviality, Santa having delivered everything everybody wanted and more? The pastor’s version is all that (especially if you’re a female pastor, and single…) PLUS all bulletins finished/pageant rehearsed/special music ready, and the Spirit having delivered to you a brief but brilliant, life-transforming word to share with those gathered in the church for one chaotic hour – perhaps the only one that year.

Every year I swear I will be oh-so calm and serene and oh-so ready for Christmas Eve that even I will have a spiritual encounter with God. Who am I kidding? If Luke’s story has any historical accuracy, the Holy Night we celebrate was a mess, its protagonists exhausted, scared, lonely, anxious, no doubt cranky. And at least one was in agonizing pain, delivering her first child in a stable, with only her betrothed to help her – and he more helpless than she.

Mary and Joseph didn’t want to be in Bethlehem, especially not when her delivery was so imminent. They were there at the behest of a cruel tyrant seeking to squeeze yet more taxes out of a conquered people. Luke is so specific about the people in power at that time – Caesar Augustus, Quirinius; and the towns Mary and Joseph traveled from and to – Nazareth in Galilee, Bethlehem in Judea. His specificity reminds us that the gift of God in flesh, Emmanuel, God with us was not general and vague, but personal, bounded in human time, space and history. And emotion.

Jesus didn’t come into this world on an eiderdown comforter. He came into a mess, a chaotic night in which a young couple desperately sought accommodation in a strange city, finally accepting the offer of space with household livestock as the birth pangs became more urgent. He came into a political and religious mess, to a people exhausted by generations of oppression at the hands of successive occupying empires.

And he comes into our mess. If we’re feeling harried with only 48 shopping hours left before Christmas, that Amazon order still unplaced, Christmas cards not yet embarked upon, arguing with our spouse or children or both – don’t think you’re not in the Christmas spirit. You’re ONE with the Christmas spirit, the original one.

Where are you today? What feels most urgent? Is it something life-giving or spirit-dampening? Name the feelings attached to the urgency or stress. Naming feelings free us to usher them away, their work of making us pay attention done.

Invite Jesus to be with you in what you’re feeling. As we accept his presence in our turmoil, we may become readier to identify with what he experienced as a newborn – complete vulnerability, confusion, cold.

And if you’re actually ready and serene, glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth! That’s the Christmas Spirit too. Get out and share that calm with someone harried.

Getting to Bethlehem can be a stressful slog, and a journey full of pain and expectation. All of the above. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.

12-20-16 - No Place to Rest

Have any other two sentences generated so much drama for so many centuries?

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

That’s it, all Luke says. But because he mentions an inn with a no-vacancy sign, every Christmas pageant has to include an innkeeper, and every nativity drama a race against the clock by a desperate couple frantically seeking a place to have a baby, who is going to pop out any minute now…

Maybe Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem for a while before her contractions started. Maybe they camped out somewhere, needing shelter only when the baby arrived. Maybe the place in the house where the livestock were kept was the warmest, and that’s why they put the infant Jesus in the manger filled with straw. Maybe they wrapped him in cloths because onesies hadn’t been invented yet.

We know so little, yet we make so much of these few words. Because it’s a great story, all of it. The homeless couple, the rough shepherds, the glorious angels, the friendly beasts… and in the midst of all of it, the incarnate son of God. You couldn’t make up a story this good.

Do the details matter? Maybe not – but there’s richness in them. It is significant that Jesus spent his first night on earth in a feed trough in a stable. It reminds us that he did not come to make his home in this world. He did not seek the comforts that keep so many of us holding on to more than we need while others go without. Though the Gospels suggest he lived a regular home-based life once he and his parents settled back in Nazareth after a period of exile in Egypt, after he began his ministry he stayed on the move. “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He almost didn’t have one to start with either.

Jesus is never recorded as leading anyone into a building – he led his followers out. I believe that out of the building is still where most of our church ministry is to be lived. We church folk have got it pretty backward in the 21st century. We’ve imposed onto our churches the assumption that home is where the heart is. It’s not the only place.

Last week at St. Columba's, we held a short memorial service with our “Water Ministry” guests to remember those who died homeless in our community in the past year. The congregation included many volunteers as well as many who live on the streets. I remembered that Jesus spent his first nights not at “home,” but camping out in temporary lodging, sharing space with animals, in a city his parents were visiting. What we call homelessness was his first reality. The company of the marginalized was his first community.

Maybe we need to pay more honor to the life going on outside our homes. Though there is dysfunction and injustice in it, let’s be sure we don’t miss the life in people whose lives aren't in a mold we consider normal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eliminate homelessness; we should, we must, and God willing we will. I’m suggesting that as we do, we might draw nearer to those who find themselves homeless, because in doing so we may just draw closer to Jesus.

12-19-16 - Waiting on the Baby

Advent IV is past and gone – onward to Christmas! As I write this, my first batch of Christmas cookies is cooling. Soon and very soon…

"So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born…"

It gets real for me when I set up the crèche. Each year, I place the figures the same way in the stable, the angels at the same angles on the gold lame cloth that represents the glory of the Lord (that “shone round about them…”). The wise men are still far off on the top shelf of the bookcase, the shepherds abiding in the fields, the stable cat is at the base of the hayloft. This year I set a welcome mat at the edge, though Mary and Joseph received no welcome.

And there they are, Joseph standing with a staff, Mary kneeling, gazing at an empty manger, waiting… waiting… waiting for the moment when it all changes, when new life brings an end to the old. Mary and Joseph would never be able to go back to what they’d known. No new parents can – and these two were going to face more change than most.

What are you waiting for in your life this week? Perhaps it’s related to Christmas, perhaps not.
What new life are you praying for?
And what are you hoping will never go away?

New life is always coming at us, sometimes taking up the space of something we rather liked, or had grown comfortable with. Is there something yearning to take up space in your life, space you’re willing to create by letting something else go?

On Christmas Eve, when I get home from church, I will fetch the baby out of the little wicker trunk in the back of the stable (hey, Mary had to have some luggage…) and place him in the manger. Jesus always shows up, eventually. Sometimes we just have to let him out of the stuff we carry around…

12-16-16 - Change of Plans

Those who have grown up with the Christian tradition have long since accepted the implausible impossibles at the heart of our Christmas story. We either accept them as “gospel truth,” or as privileged narratives given authority by centuries of holy use, or at least as a great story. Do we even blink anymore at hearing that a young girl might become pregnant “by the Holy Spirit,” and be supported by a man who had every reason to be quit of her but stayed because an angel told him to?

It has become so ingrained as “that’s how the story goes,” it can be hard to experience the wonder and fear such events might evoke. A few weeks ago I was inspired by a crazy “What if….” What if God had decided that Joseph would bear the son of God? I mean, if we’re talking about the God for whom nothing is impossible, why not go there? I wrote this up as a somewhat playful short sermon drama (let me know if you want to read it…); I wanted to ratchet up the sense of dislocation this story should elicit in us.

Joseph and Mary experienced a radical change of plans. Their future looked all set – they were engaged, would soon be married; Joseph had a good living as a carpenter, Mary was young and healthy. The plan looked good.

Except God had a different plan – a way, way bigger plan. A plan that required an unbelievable amount of faith, to believe in something that could not possibly be proven in any empirical way. A plan that demanded an inconceivable amount of courage, to defend a “conceiving” that looked an awful lot like sin and betrayal. A plan that would bring some joy, yes, and also a great deal of heartache and uncertainty.

What plans of yours have been disrupted – by God, or by the choices of others, or by circumstances beyond your control?
Have you grieved those lost plans?  It’s worth naming them, if only to better let them go.
How creative and resilient were you in adapting to the new circumstances? Have you adjusted yet?
What is your prayer in response to your plan changes? Where do you sense the Holy Spirit’s involvement in your life? Can you glimpse a bigger plan in what has happened? Name it.

Looking back, sometimes we can see blessing in what came about instead of our plans. We see this in It’s a Wonderful Life, as George Bailey discovers that his continually laying aside his life plans made him not a failure, but a blessing to countless people, including himself. It is considered a holiday film because of its Christmas climax – but it also echoes the challenges facing Mary and Joseph in our nativity story.

I surely hope they were blessed by the new trajectory of their lives as they embraced God’s plan. I firmly believe that the world has been blessed by them. I have been.

Here's how their conversation with the angel might have gone...

Look, I know this is not what you were expecting. And I can’t promise that it’s all going to be easy from here on out. This plan of God’s – it’s complicated, and it’s not all happy endings along the way… though hang on for the real ending. That’s a doozy. You’re going to face adversity and hardship and challenge—

Keep going, pal – you’re really selling it!

But I think you’re also going to find you’re right at the heart of God’s greatest gift to the world. God is all-powerful, yet God cannot set this story in motion without both of you. It’s going to take tremendous faith, but I assure you, it’s a heck of a story.

Do we have a choice? Looks like this pregnancy is already well underway.

You have a choice in how you respond… Will you walk into the story? Will you exercise your faith? Will you hold each other when one of you starts to doubt? Will you let love be your answer?

12-15-16 - Trust and Obey

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…”

Joseph was a paragon of virtue, it would appear, a man who did what God commanded even though it exposed him to shame and ridicule – and ultimately danger, once the implications of being step-father to God’s son became apparent. Yet Joseph excelled at obeying.

I’m not fond of the word “obedience.” There is a hymn I've never liked, for I believe it captures all the legalistic religiosity I spend much energy countering:
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way /to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” 

“Yes, there is!” I want to shout. “There is the way of grace and acceptance and doing good on the power of the Spirit, not on our own!” As one whose faith came alive under a steady stream of preaching about the grace of God, and who is keenly aware of the limits of willpower, I prefer to stress the unconditional love of God that we receive despite our failure to obey. Obedience is so closely linked in my mind to legalism, I react negatively, despite my general compliance.

And yet, here is Joseph, reminding me of the power that can be unleashed when we simply obey. Joseph’s obedience may have been a product of a self-disciplined nature. Or maybe it resulted from the very clear and powerful, supernatural encounter he had in his dream with an angel of the Lord – reinforced, no doubt, by Mary’s tale of her own angelic encounter. We might find ourselves more inclined toward obeying and following God's guidance if we can be more in touch with our own divine encounters. They may not be as dramatic as Joseph’s, but they are real.

So... when did you last sense the Spirit of God nudging you or instructing you in some way? When did you last sense the presence of God around you? Or see evidence of God’s handiwork in your life or in the world?

If you can’t think of anything… there might be a prayer in that, asking God to help you become more aware, or to open your own heart a little wider to what is happening in the unseen realm of spirit.

It is hard to trust, let alone obey, a total stranger. If we keep God at arm’s length or at a polite distance, it's harder to discern the leaps of faith we are invited to take – or jump. God may never ask us to take a leap like Joseph did… Then again, God does invite us, like Joseph, to nurture the Christ-life in ourselves and in others, every day of the year.

We don’t have to escort a pregnant woman to Bethlehem… we just have to get ourselves there, and trust God to walk with us no matter what comes.

12-14-16 - God With Us

Matthew the Gospel writer is big on linking events he is telling about to things foretold by Hebrew prophets. After all, he was writing the Good News for a predominantly Jewish audience, many of whom needed convincing about this Jesus movement.

So, after he tells us about Joseph’s dream, in which an angel instructs Joseph to go forward with his marriage to Mary, “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit,” Matthew adds, “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

Emmanu-el. That’s a big claim in one name: God with us. Not "God far away," not "God too holy to be approached" – God with us. That’s the heart of our whole deal as Christians.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...” (John 1:14)
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and God will dwell with them.’” (Revelation 21:3)

It is a radical thing to say God is with us. It means we can’t say we’ve been abandoned, no matter how alone we might feel. It means we can’t place God at an unreachable distance from ourselves or our world. In Christ, we have been granted entrée to the throne of God, “For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:17)

Does it change our perception on the challenges we face in life, knowing that God is with us? Think about the things you feel are insurmountable, or the places you feel powerless (plenty of those these days…). Now bring those up in prayer, in the context of God’s “with-us-ness.” How does it feel to pray to God with you? To pray with God, not to God. We often pray to God-far-away. Jesus is God-with-us.

Can we start to take advantage of the proximity and access that is ours as members of the household of God and citizens of the realm of God? Maybe play with places in your imagination where you might go to talk with Jesus in prayer. “The Word is very near you – on your lips and in your heart,” Paul tells us in Romans 10:8, quoting Deuteronomy. What's the good of all this access if we don't use it?

Emmanu-el has drawn near to us in love.
God is with us, always.
We can go away; God will not.

How will you live today, owning that truth deep in your being? How will you share that gift?

12-13-16 - Field of Dreams

One of my favorite “faith movies” of all time is Field of Dreams. I saw it 11 times in a year – in theatres. It tells the story of an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears a whispered voice telling him to plow under a fruitful field of corn and build a ball park. This is economic and agricultural madness, and yet he is convinced of the voice’s reality. Equally nutty instructions follow, leading to the impossible reality that Shoeless Joe Jackson and other baseball greats of yore, now dead, start coming through the corn to play on the field and interact with Ray and his family.

Ray’s wife supports him following these instructions – but it’s hard. Is he losing his mind? At a crucial point, when she’s ready to give up, they both have the same dream one night, giving them the confirmation they need to stay on this seemingly insane course and follow where it leads.

Joseph of Nazareth had a LOT of dreams. Like his namesake, the Joseph of the woven cloak and jealous brothers, the New Testament Joseph received regular angelic communications through his dreams. Unlike the Joseph of Torah, however, whose dreams were symbolic and required interpretation, Joseph of Nazareth gets clear instructions, “Do this,” “Go there,” “Don’t go there,” “Okay, it’s safe now…”

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, the angels just show up directly to people like Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, unmediated by REM sleep and human processes. They’re just there – “Look out! Be not afraid!” The writer of Matthew either heard different stories, or maybe thought Luke was embellishing things, for in his telling the angels speak only through dreams. And in Matthew, it is Joseph who receives the divine message that in Luke is delivered to Mary.

After Joseph learns of Mary’s premature pregnancy, and resolves to divorce her quietly,
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”

Have you ever had a “God dream?”
What message did you discern? Did you act on it?

In what ways do you sense the Holy Spirit communicates with you? In prayer directly? Through events and coincidences? By a strong sense or urge to do or say something that bears good fruit? Through meditating on the Word of God? I have a friend who gets pop song lyrics in her head – always with a message that suggests answers or guidance.

I believe the Holy One is often messaging us. As we tune our receivers, we begin to discern those messages more often. And when we do, we check that our interpretation is consistent with what we read in Scripture, not contrary. We can also seek confirmation from others in our community of faith. If the Spirit suggests you do something radical, the Spirit will give someone else confirmation for you.

In Field of Dreams, as in our nativity story, the instructions in dreams leads, ultimately, to love, to reunion and reconciliation and restoration. Which is where all God dreams ultimately lead… Joseph’s, and mine, and yours.

12-12-16 - Stepping Up

Ah, at last we get to the story, the story we tell and re-tell about the angels and the shepherds and the sweet young woman great with child and... Oh, wait, not quite that story. Angels, yes, but only in dreams. No shepherds or inn-keepers in Matthew’s pageant. In fact, he barely works Mary in, naming her only as Jesus’ mother and Joseph’s betrothed. This is Joseph’s story, as Matthew tells it:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.

Interestingly, Matthew does not refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father – in fact, he tips the “messianic secret” in the first line. Mary is introduced as mother and fiancée, but all the action here is with Joseph – his challenges, his choices.

We are told he is a righteous man, and we can see how gentle is his response, to dissolve the betrothal in quiet so as to protect Mary from legal liability as an adulteress. Then an angel intervenes in a dream, giving him the rundown that, in Luke, Mary hears directly from the angel Gabriel.

And Joseph decides to obey this dream message, probably despite his own misgivings and the derision of the people close to him. He does so honorably, and endures Mary's pregnancy without marital gratification – all the while preparing to welcome and raise a first-born whom he knows is not his biological child. In today’s idiom we might say, “Joseph totally steps up. Dude.” (Randy Travis tells his story – and The Whole Story – in Raise Him Up.)

Today I invite you to think about who in your life has stepped up for you, above and beyond their “duty?” Relatives, teachers, colleagues, friends…. Let your gratitude fill you – and if they’re still around to be thanked, thank them again.

And then think about who or what you are being called to nurture into strong, healthy growth. Who are you helping to “raise up?” What are you helping to build? I trust you realize this is God’s work, work God invites us to participate in. The results are not up to us, but sometimes the work won't happen if we don't agree to do it.

God asked Joseph to participate in a critical role in the plan of salvation that we claim as Christians. It was not an easy “yes,” any easier than Mary’s was. But Joseph said yes – and so helped to raise us up in the Life of God.

12-9-16 - Hitting the Highway

We are on a journey in this life – that’s a truth, if trite. We are ever on the move away from or toward home. Isaiah, in his prophecy about the return of Israel’s exiles to their homeland in Jerusalem, writes of a royal highway on which you cannot get lost:

"A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray."

For a people separated from their homeland, these were words of deep promise and hope – 
"Say to those who are of a fearful heart, 'Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.'" 

In the world right now an unprecedented number of people are exiled from their homelands. Even if this is not our literal experience, each of has some areas in which we feel far from what we want, or who we love, or from the kind of peace and wholeness we crave. That highway is there for us too – and it leads to healing.

"Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy."

In the season of Advent we are invited to get in touch with what it is we yearn for; what – or who – we are waiting for. What is that for you? 
How do you fill in the blank, “When I have….,” or “when I am…, then I’ll be okay?” 
Where do you want to get that you are not already?

The Good News is that this highway is already accessible to us, to bring us closer to our own hearts, and to the heart of the God who awaits us at the end of every road we travel.
It is a highway for those who have been redeemed, set free, by the love of Jesus Christ for humankind. And it sounds like a mighty fun road, with joy and laughter –

"And the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing;
  and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away

What we celebrate in this season, what we anticipate, is that day when sorrow and sighing are gone for good. Even now we glimpse that day in moments, in bursts – it is coming; it is here; it is ahead on that royal road, that highway to heaven, right here on earth.

12-8-16 - Streams in the Desert

For the rest of the week, I’d like to turn to the portion of Hebrew scripture appointed for Sunday – a beautiful prophecy of restoration and hope from Isaiah 35. It speaks of the day when the travails of the exiles are lifted and they return once again to their homeland. In the poetry of the prophet, the land itself joins in celebration:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. 

Deserts are fascinating places – often rich with plants and trees, but always vegetation that thrives under challenging conditions – wind, sun, drought. Some seasons in our lives are like that. Sometimes one area feels arid while others seem more productive. One fruit of spiritual growth is knowing we can thrive under conditions that are less than ideal as well as during times of plenty.

What feels dry in your life at the moment?
What pains you these days? What are you anxious about?
What do you yearn for that feels far off?
What are you thirsty for?
Name those things – lay them down before the Lord in your prayer today.

Much of what we do in prayer is become aware of what’s going on with us, so we can invite God’s Spirit into those places. Another name for God’s Spirit is the River of Life – coursing through us, splashing into the thirsty spaces, cleansing, healing, refreshing, renewing, carrying away all the debris that holds us back from really living the life God has given us to live. Here is a promise:

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

Whatever in your life has become dry or brittle can be renewed. Ask for water - streams of living water will break forth in you.

12-7-16 - Greatest and Least

Advent invites us to spend time coming to know John the Baptist – who he was, why he was the way he was, what impact he had. Some people in his day thought he was the Messiah, or an incarnation of the prophet Elijah – until Herod imprisoned and later had him executed at the whim of his step-daughter. John truly was a holy man, and Jesus speaks of him as such:

“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”

And then he says something even more extraordinary: 
“…yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

What was that about valleys being lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly being exalted and the “mighty cast down from their thrones?” Here is Jesus, articulating again that equalizing quality of the realm of God – that equalizing which was so challenging to people in his own day, and has remained so in the thousands of years since.

To say that “the first will be last, and the last first,” that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to “little children,” that the least “important” member of the household of God is greater than a saint like John – that’s radical. That’s a challenge to those who feel themselves to be important, and it’s an invitation to those who do not.

Can you imagine yourself greater than a prophet like John the Baptist? Can you imagine yourself as valuable, as worthy of honor? Because Jesus says that’s what is – that those who consider themselves “in the kingdom of heaven” are that valuable, that worthy, that remarkable, that beloved.

My spiritual suggestion for today is to simply sit with that idea, of being that important in the realm of God. No one is more important than you. 
Try that on. How does it make you sit? Walk? Talk? Think?

Write down some of the reasons why you are so valuable in God’s eyes. We need to know that, to claim it, not so we can become big-headed, but so we can give God the glory. That’s what we’re here for – to glorify God in how we live and give.

Of course it’s not a popularity contest or a competition. My knowing myself to be that worthy doesn’t diminish the importance of John the Baptist – he’s the one who said, as Jesus’ ministry grew more public, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

I don’t know the man, but I can imagine the smile on John’s face growing bigger the more we recognize our worthiness in the eyes of God. I can imagine him looking at Jesus and nodding. “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere…”

12-6-16 - Holy Leaders

What do you think a holy man or woman should look like? What are the markers of "success" for spiritual leaders? This is what Jesus asks the crowds about how they viewed John the Baptist.

"What did you go out there to the desert to look at? Were you just spiritual tourists gawking at the latest guru? Did you think you were going to see a smooth-talking, well-dressed leader, get a little charge, and leave your life unchanged?"

Advent is a good time to examine our spiritual motivations, what is it we are truly yearn for, why we engage or disengage from spiritual community. It is so easy to become disenchanted with church and clergy, to expect little so we’re not disappointed - or to expect too much. Today, let's do a little inventory. When we can name our expectations, we can better manage them.

What are your expectations of your spiritual community?
When you are disappointed or disaffected, what is the cause? 
Do you communicate that, distance yourself, or engage more?

What are your expectations of your spiritual leaders? 
In what ways do they bless you? How do they disappoint?

As you name these truths, ask how you want to respond. One way, I hope, is by praying regularly for your community and your clergy - they are a part of you, and you of them.

In some ways, the role of spiritual leaders can be described in the words Jesus used about John, "This is the one about whom it is written, 'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'"

Clergy can be messengers of God's Word, God's love, God's call and invitation. At our best, we help to prepare your spiritual way, and help you walk it, without blocking your path. The more clarity you have about how you want to grow in faith, the better your leaders can help prepare the way. And whatever that “way” looks like, it should lead to Jesus.

The more you grow Christ-ward, the more you can help your pastor walk the way of truth and grace - and then our congregations truly become spiritual communities.

12-5-16 - What Did You See?

Last week we met John the Baptist at his prime, the vigorous prophet at the Jordan, calling people to repentance, focused and forceful. What a long way from there to where we find him this week, years later, languishing in Herod’s dungeon for the crime of having condemned Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. Speaking truth to power can get you burned.

Herod likes having him there – we are told he enjoyed theological conversations with John – but John is not free. And captivity can do things to even the strongest of people. Here we glimpse John in despair, perhaps wondering if he got it wrong. Among the most poignant words in the Gospels are:

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? That’s a question John asks for all of us at one time or another, when suddenly we’re not sure, when too much time has passed without a sign of God’s power at work, when our prayers don’t seem to have been answered, or the walls have fallen in somewhere. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"

Jesus’ response is to point not to himself, but to his works, to the fruit of his ministry: 

‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

When our faith dims and our hope weakens, we can remind ourselves of the goodness of God which we have tasted. We can remind each other of answered prayers and amazing “coincidences” that led to even more amazing outcomes. We can sharpen our awareness of divine activity around us. We can focus our vision to see the Spirit at work in other people – often easier than seeing God's hand in our own lives.

This week, keep watch: where are you catching glimpses of God-Life? Write them down. Remind yourself. Remind a friend.

We all have moments like John's, even without the suffering he endured. And we all know people asking that question, especially these days. Jesus answers us as well: "Go and tell what you hear and see."

I pray you will hear and see amazing things today, this week, and that you get really good at telling. For God is still doing amazing things in and through and around us, and there are a lot of people in captivity waiting to hear that Good News.

12-2-16 - Water and Fire

John the Baptist drew a lot of attention – ordinary people who wanted the spiritual experience he offered, and authorities investigating if he was someone they should be worried about. But he knew he was not the main attraction, only an advance man for a much bigger show:

"I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Water and fire – two elements that cannot dwell together, except in a Christian. John’s baptism was a way for people to enact repentance, to experience the water of cleansing. But the fire that Jesus brings, John says, is another force altogether, one that will do more than warm us:

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Unquenchable fire does not sound good. I don't like fire, unless it’s in a hearth or cooking something. The unquenchable fire is one image of eternal damnation.

But fire is also one of our symbols for the power of the Holy Spirit. Our life in Christ begins with water, the transforming water of baptism by which we are made one with Christ and members of God’s family. And then God’s life is released in us as we are baptized with the fire of the Holy Spirit. That’s where we get the power by which God works transformation through us. We need water and fire.

I once heard a story from someone who had visited Pentecostal Christians in Indonesia. He was at a prayer service that was about the most intense he’d ever witnessed. A woman minister was leading the prayer, and she was calling down the Spirit upon them, praying fervently, passionately, inviting God to make himself known in power, calling down Holy Spirit fire. This prayer went on for quite a while, and then suddenly the woman went quiet and a silence descended upon the group for three, four, five minutes.

And then the woman spoke: “Fire is now,” she said. And they were all filled with heat, like they were burning, but it didn’t hurt. Manifestations of the Spirit began to be seen and heard, and many were healed. “Fire is now."

If we want to open ourselves to a deeper experience of God’s love and power, we don’t stop with water – we move on to fire. Are you willing to ask God for a greater filling of Holy Spirit? There may be parts of your life you don’t want to see scorched - can you offer God access anyway? Are they keeping you from expanding your capacity for God-life, or do they help you make a way?

Fire is now. What happens if we let it burn in us?

12-1-16 - Good Tree/Good Fruit

“Good” people can do bad things; can “bad” people do good? Is there such a thing as a good or a bad person? Jesus once said that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit. Judgment seems based on the fruit our lives bear.

John the Baptizer was making his audience aware of that judgment… and he wasn’t gentle: 
“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.”

John was scathing toward “good people” who wear their religion on their sleeves but leave their hearts and behaviors untouched. Where would he place us? Need we fear God's judgment? Our culture says so; even Santa Claus is going to judge who's naughty or nice.

I give thanks for the promise that, as members of God’s household united with Christ, it is his deeds by which we will ultimately be judged (whew!). Yet Jesus also spoke of a judgment and a sorting. So let’s do another inventory today – let’s look at the fruit we bear, the outward evidence of our life, the good and not-so-good. (Get out the journal...)

What is the fruit of your relationships? Name some.
What is the fruit of your work life? Name some.
Your recreational life? Your financial life?
Your engagement in activities that help people in need?
What is the fruit of your spiritual life – what are the outward manifestations of your faith and prayer?

Are you a healthy tree, emotionally, physically, spiritually? Is any pruning or fertilizing needed? How might you become more fruitful?

Whether we’re singing, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” or “When the Man Comes Around,” a Johnny Cash song based on Revelation with strong Advent themes (and not a whole lot of grace), I thank God for the greatest gift – freedom from the ax and the fire. God is an arborist extraordinaire, who tends the trees we are and makes us trees of love.

In fact, today let's give Bono and B.B. King the last word - they say it all in "When Love Comes to Town."