Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent 2011

This time of the year always seems to be a cacophony of emotions.  Certainly it has aspects of both beginnings and endings. For some, this time of the year is bittersweet with the memories of past Christmases and a longing for those who are no longer with us.  For others it is a time of joy and excitement as they get together with family and friends to ride on the coattails of their children’s enthusiasm about the season. All in all it is a season of transitions. 

Our Church calendar begins with this season of Advent. The word Advent literally means: “ the beginning or arrival of something anticipated”.  For those of us that are Christians, that is followers of Christ, it is an anticipation of the Messiah and the coming of the kingdom of God. Advent marks our recognition of God incarnate - God with us. 

In my own faith journey this past year, I have become more and more aware of this notion of God with us.  The realization is that the Kingdom of God is not something in the future that we enter into at the time of our death.  The Kingdom of God is now. God is with us. God becomes incarnate through us as we interact with others in our day to day lives.

One of my favorite hymns of this season is “In the Bleak Midwinter”.  The last verse of the hymn goes like this:
            What can I give him, poor as I am?
            If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
            if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
            yet what I can I give him:  give my heart.

As we muddle through this season it is important to remember that Advent is a time of anticipation; the anticipation of God coming into our lives yet again.  Much like Lent, Advent is a time of reflection.  But Advent is a reflection outward instead of the inward reflection of Lent.  It is a time of hope and giving; the giving of ourselves.

So as we move through this season of Advent and then Christmas, my prayer for us all is that we allow ourselves to anticipate and encounter God through each other.  My prayer is that we all give ourselves an opportunity to follow the living Christ by our service to others; by the giving of our hearts.  The Kingdom of God is now!  Emmanuel! God is with us!

God’s peace to you now and always,


Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Confusion of Blessings

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:1-12)

When I was in grade school, I remember a science experiment we did when we were learning how our senses of taste and smell work.  As we all know, our sense of taste and smell are very much tied together.  In addition to our senses of taste and smell, our vision plays a big part in how we taste and smell things.   We know this experience all too well.  It happens every day with the hamburger and pizza commercials we watch on television or see on billboards.  In fact as I am writing this, I am watching bits and pieces of the Food Network.  My wife is making “ummm” noises as we see the delectable looking foods they are preparing.  Neither one of us can smell or taste the food we see on the television, but we can imagine the taste and smell of that food all too well.

The taste experiment I remember from grade school was for us to be blindfolded and given different foods to feel, smell and taste, then guess what they were. Some foods we could identify right away because of their texture, smell and taste.  Peanut butter on a spoon was a no-brainer…

Then the teacher brought out a tray with several bottles with droppers in them.  Some of the liquids in the bottles were colorless and others were colored in bright primary colors of blue, red, purple, green and yellow.  Without being blindfolded, our teacher would put a drop of the liquid on our fingers to taste and we would have to then guess what the flavor might be.  This was much more difficult than it would seem, especially since some of the colored liquids did not match up to the flavors… banana flavor in the blue liquid, cherry flavor in the green liquid… lemon in the purple, etc.  It just did not match up… it confused our senses and the way of thinking about what we were tasting.  What we knew in our heads did not match what we were seeing and experiencing…

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) that we began reading today in our lectionary, are some of the most endearing and well known sayings of Jesus in the whole New Testament.  Our readings from this 5th Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 5: 1-12) are what are known as “the Beatitudes.”  They are seemingly comforting words. However, if we are to really push ourselves and think about these words in the context of our own experiences in the world, it could be like my experience with the flavors in the dropper bottles.  One can come away feeling confused and challenged about how we normally perceive things in our own life experiences; especially what it means to be or feel blessed.

This account of Jesus ministry appears in both Matthew and Luke.  Some biblical scholars speak of “The Beatitudes” as a poem. This is because when the passage read as it would been spoken in ancient Aramaic,  there is a rhythm and rhyme quality to the words that Our Lord used. These words are so very familiar to us.  If you go into any card shop and stroll through the inspirational sections, you are guaranteed to find these words inside a large number of the cards.  On the surface they seem to bring comfort.

But one of the things that can manage to slip past us about these familiar words, is how radical they really are.  You see for that day and time, and even in our own, to be considered blessed for having some sort of hardship or malady is just absurd.  In the original Greek , in which the New Testament was first written, the word “blessed” come from the Greek word  “makario which means to be happy. So when thinking about this meaning of the word blessed or to be happy, the words of  The Beatitudes seem confusing.  It would make much sense for us to say I am blessed because my (401)K is doing well… or I am blessed because my house is nice and has not been foreclosed…  It is would be more likely for us to say that I am blessed because I have a job and got a raise this year…  We are blessed because we have an unlimited amount of food and clean drinking water available to us…

What we would NOT say is exactly what Jesus DID say. We would not say,  “I am blessed because I am struggling with depression” … we would not say, “I am blessed because I am consumed with grief”… we would not say,  the people living under political oppression and abuse are blessed; nor would they say that of themselves…

Most of us have experienced the pain of grief and/or  feelings of uncertainty that life tends to hand us over time.  And when we are in the very midst of those painful times of grief and uncertainty, these words feel audacious and somewhat insulting… “Blessed are those who mourn…?”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit…?”  “Blessed are the persecuted?”

Two weeks ago, we all were horrified as we heard the news of the crazed gunman in Tucson taking the lives of innocent people and injuring so many others.  As I watched little Christina Green’s funeral I asked “why?!”  I experienced a sense of outrage that someone could do such meaningless act of violence… there was no point to it… there was no blessing in that!

For us to find blessing in the hardships of life is just as confusing to our senses as those little bottles of flavors my school teacher brought out to us.  It is confusing to hear Jesus say that when we suffer it is a blessing.  If you are like me, I have a hard time buying into that idea.

Nonetheless, in my own life’s experiences, I know for sure I have received the blessings of others when life has been most difficult.  My wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer is not what I consider a blessing; Christina Green’s unnecessary death is not a blessing… people losing their jobs and having their homes taken away as a result of greed is not a blessing… people suffering from the results of natural disasters or wars is not a blessing…

But people sending cards and offering meals during a time of uncertainty and recover, that is a blessing… a community rallying around a mother and father overcome by grief, that is a blessing…  friends and families giving another family without a home or a job a place to stay, that is a blessing… giving disaster relief and sending food to those torn into by wars and disasters, that is a blessing…  Offering up to God in prayer those that we despise … that is a blessing…

The kingdom of God is all around us. Like the flavors in the dropper bottles, sometimes what we think we know in our heads about God and life’s challenges just do not match up.  You see, blessings never come from what you have nor the privileges we are given… blessings never come from the situation you are in… there is no blessing to grief and hardships.  The blessings come from what is given to us by others during our tough times… And the blessings also come when we reach out to each other during those times when we are most vulnerable.  That, my friends, is the Kingdom of God… that is when Christ becomes incarnate… 

Thursday, January 13, 2011


Tonight as I was watching the news and hearing even more about the tragedy in Arizona, I was flooded with the same emotions I felt on 9/11… The question of “why?” kept ringing in my head… As they played the footage of little Christina Green’s funeral I was again flooded with emotions of grief and can only imagine what it must be like for her parents… and in reality, it is too painful and overwhelming to even to begin to imagine…

I thought about the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner. I asked in my head, What went wrong? How could anyone become so twisted… so evil? What could make a person go so far off the deep end to kill and maim so many people without any sense of regret or remorse? How could anyone become so mentally ill and evil…

There are no easy answers to any of these questions. And even if we knew all of the answers, it would not change what cannot be undone nor the pain and grief it has caused for so many. The only thing we can do is respond in some way. We do have some choice around that… maybe… I think.

The response for us that profess to be followers of Christ is to somehow forgive Jared… really?! I am not sure how… I am not sure I even want to know how... For the people that were victims and their families, this seems like an outrageous thing to ask. Give the death penalty… make the perpetrator suffer… get revenge… that sounds much more reasonable and maybe easier to do! But is that the response that will cause anything to change?

It is insane to believe or think that God caused any of this to happen… Will any good come out of this? probably… I think there has been already. Does that answer the question “why”? Not one bit! Nonetheless, the tragedy stands to remind us what is really important… what really matters is life. When tragedy strikes, agendas go out the window… Things and money become meaningless…The support and love of others becomes the ultimate value and need… Love and compassion somehow rises to the top…

My hope in the days to come is that love and compassion stays floating on the top… I hope that as choices are made about how to respond to what has happened, it is done with love and wisdom… I hope we seek ways to prevent tragedies like this from happening again and not just seek retribution and revenge… May God have mercy on all the souls affected… may He grant his peace…

Most merciful God, whose wisdom is beyond our understanding: Deal graciously with all who suffer in their grief. Surround them with your love, that they may not be overwhelmed by their loss, but have confidence in your goodness, and strength to meet the days to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen (BCP p.494)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Liberals vs. Conservatives

I have had an interesting debate with an old friend on Facebook this week. It started with me posting a “like” on my profile for a group called “The Christian Left”. When I did this, one of the first comments was from this old friend that said, Do you align yourself with socialist, communist, etc? I responded by saying, “No, just followers of Christ and the diversity it represents; Christ taught love and acceptance... not hatred, fear and name calling... I also let my friend know that I did not appreciate his “labeling” and what I perceived as name calling. I think though it was all just his way of inviting me into a debate about politics and religion… which is okay, those kinds of debates are good to do as long as it does not get nasty and personal.

My friend went on to say, “Just asking, I read a little and see they don't believe that far left which is good. I agree with your statement above, a view can be expressed without the name calling and personal attacks which I am against.

I then responded with, “Sorry I misinterpreted your question, but it did come across as a ‘dig’... I do consider myself progressive and we probably would not agree in our political views; which is okay... I just believe that we need to be Christ-like in our comments to one another no matter how far left, or right one might be in their views... For me, following Jesus is about love, compassion and helping those that do not have the means to help themselves... if you consider that ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’...then I guess I do align with that...

My friend then responded with, “No, I agree we should help those as directed by the Holy Spirit. I cannot help everyone. I know the government cannot help everyone either. Jesus said we will always have the poor with us. Jesus did a finished work on the cross and that includes providing for everyone if they will only believe on Him. Problem is when we put our belief in something else it comes up short, including the government.”

My next response was, “And I would add this: something Jesus actually said to his believers ("those that believe on him")... "just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me..." Very true that the poor will always be with us, but it is not an excuse to ignore and turn our backs on poverty. I would not agree that Jesus "did a finished work on the cross"; the story ends (or rather begins) with resurrection and life. This is a lively debate and I will write more later... You have inspired me to write more, which I am going to use in my blog...

As read back over this, I wondered if we were debating the same issues or not. I know that my friend, based on his Facebook posts, most likely aligns himself with “conservative” values and political views. I would guess, but don’t know for sure, that he considered himself part of the “Tea Party” movement. Politically, I would consider myself having the opposite view. I consider myself a progressive and I am a follower of Christ or “Christian” as he is as well.

It is tempting for me to launch into a discourse about why I think I am correct in my views and he is wrong, but I think that would ultimately bring more division and definitely go against what I believe Christ taught, love, compassion and acceptance. My friend would most likely hold to the idea that the Bible is the infallible word of God and should be taken literally and at face value. I would not. I see the Bible as the inspired word of God, written by man and open for interpretation and discernment. But what I think we both would agree on is that the Bible contains all things necessary for salvation and contains eternal truth. I think that we would both agree that following Christ can transform people’s lives and should be the basis for how we live our lives.

In the end, the progressive (or liberal) vs. conservative debate is really based in fear. In my progressive way of seeing things, trickle-down economics just does not work. It only breeds greed and corporations focused on profit rather than people; it has happened already. I think government has to be an advocate for the people by limiting corporations from becoming too big and too greedy. My conservative friends take the opposite view. They feel that government should stay out of the loop and that the free enterprise system will work just fine if left to its own devices. The conservative view is that we need to promote an unobstructed free enterprise system to create jobs. Nonetheless, both progressives and conservatives are concerned about the economy, human rights and personal freedoms. We just do not agree on how we go about addressing those things.

It seems to me that if we as a nation could start focusing on the things we agree on rather than always focusing on “left wing” or “right wing” agendas, everyone would get at least some of what they want. Just like in communities of faith, our common lives together absolutely depends on each other. The same is true for our nation. The threat of terrorists, the Taliban, emigrants or any other entity outside our borders is nothing compared to the damage we are doing to ourselves from within. Hatred, suspicion, greed and fear feeds on itself. Those are the things that will bring our nation down quicker than anything else. When we can learn to treat each other with dignity, compassion and love, is when our nation will be on course and be a true leader in the world.