Advent During a Pandemic (3)

Week 3: Joy, December 13th, 2020

“For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” —Luke 1:44

For Joy by Jan Richardson

You can prepare

but still

it will come to you

by surprise

crossing through your doorway

calling your name in greeting

turning like a child

who quickens suddenly

within you

it will astonish you

how wide your heart

will open

in welcome

for the joy

that finds you

so ready

and still so

unprepared.

*****************

If possible, listen to “Prepare the Way of the Lord” which is a song from the Taize community of France. It can be accessed on YouTube, Spotify, or itunes. Try listening to it several times over and then singing it to yourself as you pray and center yourself on this week’s theme of joy. 

The centering words of this song are: 

Prepare the way of the Lord.

Prepare the way of the Lord,

and all people will see the salvation of our God.

What if part of preparing the way of the Lord, or making room for the inbreaking of the kin-dom that the Christ child will bring, is preparing your heart to have some room for joy. Maybe some joy will surprise you this Christmas season as Jan writes. Perhaps in this re-ordered year that looks nothing like the year before, there has been space opened up for joy in a way that we have never experienced before. 

Perhaps you have spent a portion of this year in grief for any number of reasons. One thing that the process of grieving does is open up a well of space within us that, if we let it, empathy fills. Empathy is a huge gift to you and to the world around you. Maybe joy can fill this new-found space too. 

In your journaling this week, answer: 

How is joy calling your name, as Jan writes? 

Is your heart open to be surprised by what brings you joy this Advent and Christmas that maybe you would have missed before? 

Mary Oliver reminds us of this: “joy was not made to be a crumb.” May we not reduce joy in our lives to a crumb of leftovers. May it instead be the featured guest at the Christmas feast.

Advent during a Pandemic (2)

Week 2: Peace, December 6th, 2020

Where can you go or what can you do to find peace? Peace is a kind of space. Space between a trigger and a reaction/response. Space away from chaos and into quiet. Space to remember your name and who you are. Space away from immediate gratification and into waiting. Space away from shame, negative thoughts, and disconnection. Space for an afternoon of laughing and storytelling with a dear one in your life. 

May peace be a close friend this Advent. Blessed are you who make peace. 

Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou

Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes

And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.

Flood waters await us in our avenues.

Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche

Over unprotected villages.

The sky slips low and grey and threatening.

We question ourselves.

What have we done to so affront nature?

We worry God.

Are you there? Are you there really?

Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,

Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope

And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.

The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,

Come the way of friendship.

It is the Glad Season.

Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.

Flood waters recede into memory.

Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us

As we make our way to higher ground.

Hope is born again in the faces of children

It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.

Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,

Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.

In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.

At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.

We listen carefully as it gathers strength.

We hear a sweetness.

The word is Peace.

It is loud now. It is louder.

Louder than the explosion of bombs.

We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.

It is what we have hungered for.

Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.

A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.

Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.

We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.

We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.

We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.

Peace.

Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.

We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,

Implore you, to stay a while with us.

So we may learn by your shimmering light

How to look beyond complexion and see community.

It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.

On this platform of peace, we can create a language

To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.

At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ

Into the great religions of the world.

We jubilate the precious advent of trust.

We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.

All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices

To celebrate the promise of Peace.

We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,

Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.

Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.

Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves

And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.

Peace, My Brother.

Peace, My Sister.

Peace, My Soul.

Advent during a Pandemic (1)

Field Guide for an Advent Wilderness

Week 1: Hope, November 29th, 2020

Has hope been hard to find this year? Have you been reticent to actually hope for things to get back to how they were before a pandemic hit our world because you keep getting disappointed? How many of your hopes have not come to pass this year? How many events or gatherings did you hope for that were canceled? 

It indeed has been a year of a different kind of hope. Hope looked different this year because we began to hope that we and those we love would be healthy and Covid-free rather than for our favorite sports team to win. We hoped for essential workers to stay safe and for folks to make it who had been laid off instead of hoping for a grand vacation. We hoped for the mere chance to hug each other in our faith communities’ sanctuaries again. 

This year forced our priorities to change. Normally, Advent and Lent are periods of time when we take pause to reorient our hearts. But, since March, our hearts have been forcibly reoriented. Time has slowed. Schedules have slowed. Isolation as a form of love became the new norm. 

What lessons have you learned this pandemic? In all the hardness, do not miss the gifts of learning that have been given to you, even if you didn’t want to learn them. 

Take time this week to journal, answering the questions: 

    How have I been changed this 2020 year? 

What do I hope to keep from the learning I gained this year, or what

do I need to let go of? 

    Name your hopes. 

Then, draw a picture of what hope looks like to you in December 2020. This will be a gift to yourself when you look back on this year of pandemic. 

Remember what is, was and is to come is the Lord’s. 

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us: “Nothing can fall out of God, nothing.” 

My Hope is Built on Nothing Less by Edward Mote, 1834

My hope is built on nothing less

than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;

I dare not trust the sweetest frame,

but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

all other ground is sinking sand,

all other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils his lovely face,

I rest on his unchanging grace;

in ev’ry high and stormy gale,

my anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, his covenant, his blood

support me in the whelming flood;

when all around my soul gives way,

he then is all my hope and stay.

When he shall come with trumpet sound,

O may I then in him be found,

dressed in his righteousness alone,

faultless to stand before the throne.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand;

all other ground is sinking sand,

all other ground is sinking sand.

as autumn arrives

the quietness of autumn-gold beams hit the leaves

luminescent leaves of autumn

the full moon lingers near

orange in its slow, low rise

cream in its height

the chill hints that autumn is here

casting its shadows, telling its stories

stories of these old hills — where we are from

nothing new under the sun

draw close and stay warm

good things await…

A Virtual Lovefeast

We weren’t sure how this was going to go… no where in our church history or my pastoral experience did we have any track record of gathering virtually for Holy Week. I mean, Holy Week is aptly named… it is holy, precious and set apart for many of our faith communities. So much of the power of it has come from our communal gathering where we sit lamenting the death of Christ and later celebrating the Resurrection.

Cue COVID-19.

Holy Week could not happen as it had been happening for so many years. We could not gather in person because, as it turns out, loving neighbor right now, is staying distant from our neighbors.

Thus… a Zoom Lovefeast was organized for Maundy Thursday.

Recipes for bread were sent and folks were encouraged to cook their dinner meals and set up a Zoom connection at their dinner tables.

We didn’t know if people would actually be into this or not. Would technology be able to connect us? Would people have technological issues accessing the meeting? I thought it would be cool to have 20 people there.

But as we opened the Zoom room, more and more people logged in… singles, families, couples… 80, 90, 100 people.

We began the liturgy of our virtual Lovefeast with a communal Call to Worship… because we knew somehow in all the weirdness of the virtual world, we were still creating worship.

We sang together around our tables. We ate together. We praised God together. Young children eating spaghetti as the scripture of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples was read by other children. Prayers of the People coming in via the Zoom chat feature. The Lord’s Prayer said together, each of us muted but very much proclaiming: “give us this day our daily bread… and thy kin-dom come, thy will be done… on earth as it is in heaven.”

The bread fed us in a way it never had before. We were sad and scared in those early weeks of quarantine.

As we held our fear and sadness, we ate, prayed, and laughed, and celebrated a new kind of love. A love which initiated a new way, a kin-dom which was an antidote to the ancient and present domination system based on wealth, power, exclusivity, and violence. A new kin-dom where all are welcome, worthy, named “beloved,” and where we are invited back into right relationship with each other— the kind of relationships where our liberation is tied to one another.

Having had this powerful experience, we gave each other words of blessing as we departed.

The bread had reached deep places of hunger for each of us.

What a holy week. Thanks be to God.

 

Not a Cold and Broken Hallelujah

As a person of a particular faith for whom Easter is extremely important, and as a pastor of people in a particular faith for whom Easter is extremely important, I admittedly had a great deal of trepidation about this Easter 2020. For us, the resurrection of Jesus, the One whom Death could not hold, is the center of our faith. The Deathly powers of evil, of insatiable greed, of power-grabbing, and power-over just couldn’t win. That’s what keeps me in this thing called Christianity, for all of its downsides.

And so, Easter, just isn’t lip-service for me. It’s my center, my hope, and the thing that I rest my career and vocation on. It’s also generally the busiest week in a pastor’s year.

So, you can then begin to see my nervousness this year. How would we do Easter? How would we be able to celebrate the most precious part of our faith while separated, over a screen? How would we wash each other’s feet on Maundy Thursday? How would we sing “the light of Christ, thanks be to God” as we kept vigil for Easter? These questions lingered in my mind.

Many Christians don’t say “alleluia” during Lent. We bury the alleluias and we don’t say this special word until Easter. As I was preparing for the strangeness of a completely online Holy Week and Easter, I wondered if our alleluias, when they emerged on Easter, would be cold and broken?

It’s been feeling a little cold and broken lately, with all this fear and death around. I was hit especially hard by John Prine’s death. ……..

And then Holy Week began… with Palm Sunday where we waved branches of Tennessee’s native botany instead of palm branches that we would nC01A4A32-DCF8-4906-8F0F-F74EE7311EF7ever see in Tennessee unless they were imported. Daily pastoral reflections on the lectionary texts were centering and inspiring. Maundy Thursday brought forth a Zoom call with our congregants sitting around their dinner tables. As we said liturgy and ate together over screens, we sang The Servant’s Song:

“I will hold the Christlight for you in the night-time of your fear. I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.”

And then Good Friday brought a solemn centering that asked What Wondrous Love is This? On Facebook Live on Easter’s dawn, we did an Easter Vigil service from my living room as we kept vigil for Easter’s light. It was holy and we were connected to our early church ancestors.

We had a skeleton crew in the sanctuary for our Easter service … just enough to record the service. And as I sat on the altar, listening to a large, full organ prelude, I felt the organ’s vibrations in every cell in my body. And then, the smell of lilies on the altar wafted over…. and tears came to my eyes… I could barely get up to do the welcome.

I got up, looked into the camera, and together, our congregation said the opening words of the service: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”

These ancient words are the words of Mary, our first preacher of the Gospel, as she left the Garden after having been the first to see the risen Jesus.

The lone trumpet filled the empty sanctuary as we sang Christ the Lord is Risen Today and the pastors processed in the cross, the alleluia banner, and the scriptures.

And I begin to realize in a deep way, that our alleluias weren’t cold and broken at all. Though those kinds of alleluias are still faithful and resilient.

But our alleluias this Easter morning were different- they were full, robust, and sure. We needed Good News and we had it, and nothing, not even a novel virus, could damper our proclamations of hope.

This is not the Easter I would have ever imagined, but it is the Easter that I desperately needed.

I’ll never forget it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Lenten Field Guide (Week 6)

Lenten Field Guide // Week 6: Holy Week

Blessings, dear ones, as we near the Sunday that is known both as Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday and as we enter a Holy Week that we’ve not experienced before.

Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes, Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, once said “do not spend your lives being poster children of the status quo.” My prayer is that this intentionally long, thought-out, difficult Lenten journey has brought forth important insight and inspiration for you. We are only in April of 2020. There is much left of this year to be intentional about.

In a time where creative living is especially important, how is God leading you to be prophetic, inspired, and love-filled? How is God healing wounds that need to become scars? How are we resisting living only for ourselves? How is God transforming greed and selfishness in our lives into leading lives that create space for others to live? How are we becoming more accountable to our theologies? How are we becoming more accountable to the planet that we live on and are tasked with caring for? How are we leading lives of integrity during wilderness times?

Thanks be to God for the chance to examine these questions in this Lenten season.

Scripture to consider: Read the two chapters of the Passion Narrative according to Matthew 26:6- 27:66.

Acts of Justice and Resistance: What acts of justice and resistance have you gotten interested in checking out this Lent? How is the Holy Spirit leading you to make a more just world?

Acts of Mercy: What acts of mercy have you gotten interested in checking out this Lent? How is the Holy Spirit leading you to be merciful? Offer these up to God.

Lenten Field Guide (Week 5)

Lenten Field Guide // Week 5: When will the angels come?

     Forty days of not getting any physical sustenance is no walk in the park. One can speculate the many reasons that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to endure this terrible hardship. One possibility for the reason for this time of trial was so that Jesus could prepare his heart, body, mind, and soul for what lay ahead of him.

Pastor Heather Harriss has beautiful insight on this and writes: “What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness; rather, it plays again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son (Matt 3:17). The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:

  • Jesus refuses in the desert to turn stones into bread to assuage his own hunger, but before long he will feed thousands in the wilderness with just a few loaves and some fish (Matt 14:17-21; 15:33-38), and he will teach his disciples to pray to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).
  • He refuses to take advantage of his relationship to God by hurling himself down from the heights of the Temple, but at the end of his earthly ministry he endures the taunts of others (Matt 27:38-44) while trusting God’s power to the end upon the heights of a Roman cross (Matt 27:46).
  • He turns down the devil’s offer of political leadership over the kingdoms of the world, and instead offers the kingdom of the heavens to all those who follow him in the way of righteousness.

She continues, “The wilderness tests of the Temptation account are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Indeed, readers of Matthew’s Gospel have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power (including, perhaps, the lawyers, Pharisees and Sadducees who test him in various ways; e.g., Matt 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35) to ascertain his loyalty; with persons who too easily worry about the world’s assessment of greatness rather than God’s (including some of his own disciples; e.g., Matt 18:1-5).”

Pastor Heather writes so beautifully about the reasons for Jesus’ temptation in the desert as preparation for his ministry and death to come. Though this may not be the reason for your own trials, it does not mean that the trials you have endured cannot also prepare you for even larger ones down the road. We can speculate that on some days of Jesus’ fasting when he was weak with hunger, he might have asked “when will the angels come?” They did eventually come and care for Jesus but on those days of starvation, I’m sure it was hard for Jesus to believe that he would once again have food. But Jesus did, once again, have food and his Spirit was all the more prepared for the evil he had to face in the coming days.

Scripture to consider: Matthew 4:1-11 

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.” 5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Luke 4:14: 14 Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news about him spread throughout the whole countryside.

John 12:23-2623 Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. 24 I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Creator will honor whoever serves me.

Acts of Worship: Spend some time this week reflecting on your life’s journeys. Be gentle with yourself as you remember hard times and times of grief or pain. Think about the seasons in your life that felt like you were living in an unknown wilderness. If you are a writer, write down some thoughts and reflections about this. Or if you do not prefer writing, consider sharing your story with a family member or friend. How did these experiences impact your understanding of God? How did they affect your faith in positive and negative ways? As you reflect, if you have the space, offer these reflections up to God in your own way. It’s okay if you are still angry about what happened. It’s okay if you are still sad and the wounds are not scars yet. Things do not have to be resolved for you to reflect on them.

Acts of Devotion and Spirituality:  Practice a breath prayer each day this week.

Breathe in, saying what you feel: “I am scared, God” or “I am worried, God” or “I am grateful, God” and Breathe out: “God is with me” or “I am named ‘beloved’” or “I am yours, God”

 

 

Thin Places

Integrated in the entirety of our lives are thin places.

Moments which mark a transition in our stories. These thin places are sacred… because they hold within them the past and the future… the known and the unknown… the old and the new… the familiar and the unfamiliar. 5PzvOGjfQdi5cNTls9Psfw

Each day, we get to witness tiny thin places, like the sunset transitioning from a day full of light into a purple dusk that ends in a navy sky… (and if we are lucky, scattered stars and a beautiful moon).

Then, there are bigger thin places in our stories. Like, the end of a relationship, be it a friendship, marriage or a partnership…. where your heart is broken and you are moving into a new season without the intimacy of that person. Or, most especially, thin places that come at the end of life… as one passes from this life to the next. As a pastor, I’ve gotten the deeply holy opportunity to be with a few people when they transition this way. These thin moments are holy because they are set apart…. they are not like the rest of the moments. They hold a power within them that is laced with the vulnerability of deep emotion. These are the moments that you’ll not soon forget.

Some thin places hold deep joy, like the joining of two lives in marriage, or the birth or adoption day of a little one, or a graduation which marks the end of a long and difficult academic season.

Thin places take a lot of energy. They take bravery as they always possess mystery and the unknown. And most of all, they take paying attention… because although they often hold great anxiety, they can also hold great joy. They can mark our lives where we remember the very moment when we were changed.

I wonder if these strange days where our lives are off kilter in more ways than words can elucidate, if we are not all collectively experiencing a thin place.

It’s new and strange. It’s scary and unfamiliar. It’s full of anxiety and trepidation. It’s a thin place.  We are very close to it. How will it change us? Where will we go? What will we learn? What are we paying attention to?

God’s peace to you in this thin place. We are all here….. together.

 

Lenten Wilderness Guide (Week 4)

Lenten Field Guide // Week 4: Battling for the Bible

     In the story of Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days, as Jesus is fasting and praying, the devil tempts him– not using some unfamiliar text, but actually using scripture. A frequent, ever-present conflict in the Church is biblical interpretation. Some people feel that they read the bible literally though some passages read literally would be pretty tough. Some folks do not read literally and yet believe the scripture is still inspired by God but has mistakes. Some folks do not give any authority to scripture. How do you read scripture? How do you understand the Bible’s authority? Do you believe that God is still speaking or that God has spoken all God will speak as it was recorded in scripture?

Though the conflict in the United Methodist Church is commonly associated by the general public with LGBTQIA persons, it is important to note that it is actually a conflict over biblical interpretation. That is a very important distinction, especially for persons who identify as LGBTQIA* persons. New Testament scholar AJ Levine once said: “the Bible should be a rock upon which our faith is built rather than a rock that is thrown at others.” The stances we take, whatever they are, have implications in our everyday lives and how those lives interact with other lives. It is important to see and understand how those play out in daily living as we seek to be accountable to our theologies and biblical interpretations.

Scripture to consider: Matthew 4:1-11

Then the Spirit led Jesus up into the wilderness so that the devil might tempt him. 2 After Jesus had fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “Since you are God’s Son, command these stones to become bread.”4 Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread, but by every word spoken by God.” 5 After that the devil brought him into the holy city and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, 6 “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down; for it is written, I will command my angels concerning you, and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”7 Jesus replied, “Again it’s written, Don’t test the Lord your God.”8 Then the devil brought him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 He said, “I’ll give you all these if you bow down and worship me.”10 Jesus responded, “Go away, Satan, because it’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” 11 The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.

Mark 12:13, 38-40

They sent some of the Pharisees and supporters of Herod to trap him in his words… As he was teaching, he said, “Watch out for the legal experts. They like to walk around in long robes. They want to be greeted with honor in the markets. 39 They long for places of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. 40 They are the ones who cheat widows out of their homes, and to show off they say long prayers. They will be judged most harshly.”

Acts of Devotion and Spirituality: Read the above scripture, Matthew 4:1-11, and practice Lectio Divina with it. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice of reading a scripture a few times over and mediating on it in prayer. There are many ways to do this; here is one!

-Go to a quiet place and ready yourself to listen to the Word of God

-Read the scripture passage out loud, once through

-Pause and recall if a word or phrase stood out to you. If so, pause and sit with it in meditation and see what it is, what it feels like, what it shows you. Wonder about it.

-Then go back and read the passage to find a fuller meaning.

-Pause again and see what came to you.

-Meditate longer. End in prayer: talking to God about what came forth.