Tag Archives: Christmas

Our preparations are not our own

I was really humbled to preach the first sermon in Advent at chapel yesterday at the seminary.  For those of you who have been asking, here is a transcript of the sermon.  

Blessings on your Advent preparations!

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Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John.  Photo credit: Sweet Publishing/FreeBibleimages.org.

As begin our journey in Advent this morning, we recall that the narrative of Jesus’s birth in Luke is intertwined with the parallel story of John the Baptist’s birth and his parents Zechariah and Elizabeth.   In verses 5-20 of chapter 1, we are plunged into what Joel Green calls “the small town struggles of a little-known priest and his wife…the atmosphere is permeated by the piety of Second Temple Judaism and Jewish hopes for divine intervention.”

Now we’re living in a very different context than Zechariah and Elizabeth, but they feel like people we seminarians can relate to. They’re pretty faithful people. They’re really faithful people. Zechariah is a priest who’s given the honor of entering the sanctuary and offering incense in conjunction with sacrifices. The scripture tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth “were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

But in placing their childlessness directly after their high religious and social status, the scripture isn’t just showing us their social disgrace but reminding us of their suffering. For Zechariah and Elizabeth who scripture tells us are “both getting on in years” we can only imagine that if they have been struggling to conceive for quite some time, they have likely known the pain of losing children, carrying hope and letting go of it.

And so when the angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah, fear overwhelms him and though he’s told he and his wife will rejoice at the birth of a son John who will be great in the sight of the Lord, he doesn’t believe it. “How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” We’ve been prepared for years for this, Zechariah thinks. We’re in the temple everyday, we’re faithful, we’ve prayed and yet our prayers have gone unanswered. How will we know this time will be any different?

I find some solace in this beginning to Advent, this hard place, this small story in which God comes close and carries out God’s very plans amidst our lives. But I struggle to believe, too. You see, I have been pregnant during Advent, filled with the expectation of a child, of hope, of new life, but I have also miscarried in this season. And a few years ago, during Advent, even after having a child, my husband and I were still waiting. Following our daughter’s seizures and hospitalizations, around 10 months they did some blood tests, they sent them away, and we waited for a diagnosis.

And when we got our daughter Lucia’s diagnosis, a progressive, genetic disease of the brain, I remember wanting to be prepared. I googled the symptoms, the treatments, the prognosis. “Death in early childhood” it read. And so I remember wanting to be prepared for when, for how, for what that would look like, so I googled a lot more. We got a diagnosis and now I wanted a prognosis. I remember wanting to be prepared.

But for what? So I could hold back just a little bit, so I could love her…just a little less? What?

Now I would be lying if I told you that as a parent of a child with disability and a scholar of disability that I wasn’t pretty uncomfortable with a text this morning that seems to use muteness, disability, as a punishment for doubt and disbelief.

But my own experience also makes me wonder if there’s more to what God is communicating here. Because I remember that feeling of seeing the beautiful child God had put before me and yet wanting even more reassurance that things would be okay. Maybe that’s where Zechariah was, too, after all that waiting, even with the angel’s proclamation, he just wanted reassurance that things would really be okay. Even the good news wasn’t good enough to overcome all his fears, his plans, his googling. Maybe for Zechariah and for me and for you, we have been tempted to continue doggedly on with our own plans, because at least it gives us some control. When we begin the story, Zechariah and Elizabeth are seemingly in control of their lives and where we end our lesson this morning, perhaps the problem is that Zechariah is still struggling for it. He’d rather cling to control than experience what God has in store.

And so silence that looks like a curse of Zechariah’s unfaithfulness may be the very reminder in this Advent season that God is active in our smalltown lives even when we don’t believe it to be so. That loss and heartache and suffering and pain are the very places where God seeks to meet us, but where we often try to control that God who wants to break into our lives and our world with radical, reckless love. The best thing that God did for me in that Advent season was not to give me a clear prognosis, a healthy child or a new computer where I could google my future to death, but like Zechariah, God invited me to lay beside my plans and just love the person in front of me. God gives us life to go on living, not always in the form of children, but always in the people beside us and the ordinary circumstances of our lives—reoriented, shifted, rerouted toward the extraordinary love of Jesus Christ, our savior.

That son who will be born to Zechariah, John, will go onto urge us to “prepare ye the way of the Lord.” But make no mistake this Advent, we are but participants in the saving work of God, Jesus, and the Spirit. Thank God that our preparations are not our own.

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Quiet in Advent

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This clever sketch with its caption, “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans, or refugees,” has been circulating on social media.

This season I’ve been intentionally quiet, quiet mostly in the mornings but also quiet on the blog.  This Advent, I’ve tapped back into my practice of Lectio and Centering Prayer.  I’ve been reading the prophetic scriptures from Isaiah and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke as the Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles, lives are lost, and great fear reigns throughout our world.

I haven’t known how to respond to all the darkness, have you?  

I should speak out, I think, say something like Isaiah, the prophet, reminding us how to follow a God who is not of this world, a king who is not violent, but gentle and humble and an outsider.

Is silence surrender in the face of such great evil, especially in a season that proclaims resounding joy, reconciliation, and peace?

I strive to work for justice in fits and spurts, donating, signing petitions, calling my congresspeople, but in the mean time, in a faraway land from where our savior was born, I hope that my silence meets God’s faithfulness.  You see, what I have always found so powerful about centering prayer is that I’m not doing anything–and that’s the point.  Because if prayer is just one more thing that we do, let alone one more thing that I presume to muster of my own wisdom and accord, then it is anything but a holy offering or a right relationship to God.

And so as we wonder how to respond, I wonder, whether as always, if it isn’t less about us and more about God–God’s saving action in the world?  I am patient in this season to listen but not to listen without responsibility.  I listen and trust and charge God with all God is always doing to offering healing, respite, and reprieve.  And I wait for God to give me the words, the actions, and the steps to be an instrument of peace this Advent season.

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My little setup at the new home.  My photo.

If you’re interested, there are over 30 posts in the category “Centering Prayer” on the blog.

Here are also a few posts from past Advent reflections and practices:

This Advent, Share Joy.

Advent and Breaking In

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Thinking on Advent

Mary’s Song: Advent Expectations

God can take it

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who are struggling in waiting this season.  It strikes me that waiting and silence feel particularly cheap in a season where this so much violence and need.  What is God teaching you?  Where is God leading you?

 

Peace: A Christmas Prayer

Pine boughs and berries.  All photos mine.
Pine boughs and berries. All photos mine.

Why do we rush around this time of year as if we can accomplish the impossible, as if we are our own salvation, as if the turning of this world depends upon us?

Why do we crowd the precious gifts of the wisemen, the shepherds, and the manger with cheap imitations of praise, hope, and love?

Why can’t we find it in our hearts to praise the King of Kings, while we can find time to wrap, to bake, to travel, and to make merry?

I think it’s because we fear that the absence of control is chaos.  

We fear that if we surrender the Christmas season to God, let God take the reins, then nothing will get done.  It seems such a simple, but difficult thought, to give God this Christmas season, to let God reign.  It’s not putting Christ back in Christmas, because like all the best things in this spiritual life–we don’t do the work, God does.  Instead, we do the waiting, the watching, the wondering, and we start to feel something that passes understanding.

I learned this year–that if we live life by faith, the absence of control is not chaos, but God’s sweet, sincere peace. 

The view from our window.
The view from our window.

So this is my prayer for you this season–that as you go about your busy lives that you surrender your greatest plans, your deepest desires, yes, your hopes, your dreams, your everything to the baby Jesus.  And that in so doing, you find that living life with God at the reins lends a deep sense of peace.  May you find the space in your life to contemplate not only the gift of our savior this Christmas, but what gift God is calling you to place before our King.

Amen.

This Advent, Share joy.

This time of year there’s always a flood of meditations on Christ and Christmas, on what counts as consumerism versus what counts as Christmas, what is profane and what is sacred.  Last week, I appreciated thoughts on the subject from a Lutheran advent blog which pointed out the vehemence with which we attempt to divide Christ from culture can become an obsessive act, the focus of devotion in and of itself.

Sarah Wilson writes,

“There’s a lot of self-righteous delight in pointing out how far the culture has traveled from Christmas’s authentic meaning. There’s a snide pride in saying ‘my liturgical year kicks your practically non-existent liturgical year’s butt.’ There’s a temptation to make Advent our own good work of getting December right and being really properly set up to get the most out of Christmas. Then it’s about our coming rightly to Christ and not about his coming graciously to us.”

Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel.
Wreaths on the door of Miller Chapel, Princeton Theological Seminary.

I’ve been reading a lot this week in preparation for my course about how the images of the manger scene we cling to are not really all that Biblical or culturally accurate.  They’re inaccurate because they present the manger family as nuclear, quiet, and sterile, which neatly represent ideals we import from Western culture, not from Israelite or Biblical culture.  On the other hand, my Mexican friend told me the other day how their nativity scenes are kind of like our Christmas villages here in the states–kids relish the opportunity to add new characters (Biblical and extra-Biblical!) to the scene every year, creating elaborate vistas of mountains, crowds of children, lakes, dance floors, and parking lots!

Shifting our focus to the futile act of seeking cultural purity in our faith also causes us to miss what might be surprisingly central to both Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage and Mexican nativity scenes (and problematically absent from ours, it seems), and that is community.  One of the important reminders for me this season, whether it comes from the Lutherans, the Mexicans, the Pagans, or the tribes of Israel, is that joy is best when it is shared.  

Joseph and Mary were probably not alone on the journey to Bethlehem or in the manger that evening–the joy of Jesus’s birth was shared by cousins and aunts and uncles and shepherds and wisemen.  And then Jesus, despite the very real sacrifice, left his family to walk door to door sharing the good news with people.  Finally, the disciples took that joy, not always bravely or diligently, but they did it–to the corners of the earth.

Now I’m not an especially evangelical Christian, but I feel God’s call during this season to share joy with those who I meet.  Of course, in my mind, joy is a lot like love–it doesn’t impose, demand, or judge–it, like the birth of our Lord, is not about us, but about Christ graciously coming to us and living within us.  I feel God’s call to let others in on this gift and especially not to worry who was really there in the manger or who belongs there today.  I feel blessed to live in a time and a place where great diversity exists from door to door, and where life is fuller because you and I are both in it.  And most of all, I feel humbled to realize that this joy is not my own.

Isn’t joy meant to be shared?  Pass it on!

Advent and Breaking In

My husband and I attended an Advent service on Sunday evening: candles were lit, we sang “This is Christ the King,” and there were repeated prayers that God, hope, and power would break into our lives this season.

Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.
Stones for the foundation of a church in Yunnan, China.

For some reason these words, these prayers for “breaking in” caught my ear.  As I’ve ruminated over them the past few days, I’ve come to see that there’s inherent violence to the language, the request, and the action: we’re asking for God to shatter our present reality and its comforts and even our sense of justice.

In reality, being broken into is a terrifying experience: I recently retold a story to family and friends about a time I awoke at four am in a strange hotel room in Yunnan, China to see a hand reaching out of the curtain towards me!  And brokenness, the type our God suffers on a cross all because we could not receive him as King, is the shattering of bones, spirit, and blood.

So why do we pray for brokenness?

I think while we ask for our worlds to be turned upside down, we’re often a lot more like Herod in the Biblical story than the shepherds who make their way to the manger.  We don’t like to think that when threatened we’d come up with some power-hungry, violent plan to preserve ourselves, but the flesh in me questions just how open, how cognizant, or how hospitable we might really be to a new order, a new truth, a baby King.  

Something tells me we’d be more likely to go kicking and screaming to the manger, if at all.

Sometimes I went kicking and screaming to the people I came to know in China.  I resented that my time had to resolve around them, I got hungry and tired walking from house to house, from field to field, and I dreaded those hours of buses and trains with little sleep or comfort.  I tried to put up walls that would preserve my sense of control, my time, and my culture.  Because to me, the Chinese life felt incredibly inconvenient and uncomfortable at times, and I didn’t want to let my sense of culture, right and wrong, or justice be disrupted by their messy worlds.

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But in breaking is a lot like living in China, I think.  

It’s the opposite of convenient, because it’s revelation where God doesn’t ask us to give way–God simply shoves us and all our convictions aside.  I saw a meme this week that said, “the world needs a stable influence,” but as long as we think of the stable as stabilizing, quaint, or even hygenic, we lose sight of the meagerness of the manger, the upheaval of nations and kings wrought by it, or the savior that made his way into the world only to be rejected, broken, and burdened by our sin.

It’s not that this season isn’t about joy and hope and power–the Christ story is ultimately a story of redemption from sin and evil when all seemed to be lost.  But given what God has done, I’m not so sure we need to pray that God breaks in.  Instead, I wonder if our prayer shouldn’t be that God make us willing and able to recognize and receive revelation, inconvenient as it may be, or seemingly out of place in a season we’ve chosen to decorate with candles and Christmas.

Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Bringing the water buffalo home for the day in Yunnan, China. Photos by Evan Schneider.