Seventeen Months

Seventeen months ago, everything was different.

Seventeen months later, we are all different.

I have struggled during these months. As a pastor in a relatively new call, I have struggled to lead my church. As a family member of people who have varying levels of trust in science and medicine, as well as diverse political views, I have struggled to care for my loved ones. As a confident decision maker, I have struggled with decision fatigue so much, I don’t think I can say I’m a “confident decision maker” any more.

And I know I am not the only one.

This week I have been reminded of this because of conversations (confrontations?) with two of my loved ones.

In one situation, after 6 months of no conversations, we were able to have a conversation and find our way to reconciliation. Guess what? It was not about our relationship or anything either of us did to the other. It was all about the stress and struggle of seventeen months and both of us working uniquely hard jobs and managing family difficulties and making so many decisions. One one side, it had led to paralysis and self-preservation in the form of not engaging in any extra stress. On the other side, it had led to paranoia and hurt feelings.

In another situation, I have become kind of snarky and unforgiving as I assume the other person has become resentful and uncaring and I don’t think they are being fair or kind and I’ve started to let those thoughts creep out of my mouth. This morning as I was allowing myself to get a little worked up about it, I felt the tug on my heart.

Everyone has had an incredibly difficult seventeen months. Maybe you should pray for this person instead. Maybe you should assume they are doing their best and are having an even harder time than you have had. Maybe instead of assuming the worst about someone else while you give yourself grace upon grace, you should extend a little of that grace to this person.

So I’m trying to do better, because it’s not fair. And we all need a bit more grace all around. It’s easy to cast blame and snark and assume the worst about someone’s intentions. It’s harder to think of people and situations as complicated, multi-layered, and not all about “me.”

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)

p.s. I don’t really know how to get back into blogging, but I know I need to start writing and reflecting again. So receive this as a first offering after a long drought.

Luke 2:6-7

Read the whole passage for today here.

6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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. Luke 2:6-7

In her book Light of the World, Amy-Jill Levine makes this point:

The term manger is not just a bed of straw; it is a feeding trough. Those who remember their high school French should recall the verb manger, “to eat.” Mary places her baby where food is found; how appropriate, for this baby will later take “the bread…saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me'” (Luke 22:19). By locating Jesus in the manger, Luke is anticipating the Communion story. More, the name Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” If you go to a traditional Jewish household or a service where there’s meal, you would begin with the grace before the meals: “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, ha motzi lechem min ha’aretz, who brings forth bread (lechem) from the earth. We should remember the manger in Bethlehem not only at the Last Supper but also in connection to all the passages where Jesus shares a meal with others.”

Tomorrow night, I’ll say the words of institution at our Zoom Communion Table during our Christmas Eve service. I’ll quote another favorite author, Ann Weems, who wrote “If there is no cross in the manger, there is no Christmas.” I suppose it’s also true that if there is no bread of life in the manger, there is no Christmas.

O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver, desire of the nations and Savior of all: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Luke 1:39-44

You can read the whole text for today here.

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Luke 1:39-44

I’m re-sharing something I wrote 9 years ago. It’s about another woman who greeted with blessing on her lips and in her very soul. My beloved friend, Willie Ann, died this year at the tender age of 96. She was a kind, generous, loving soul who always took the time to remind me who I was and whose I was. Here are my words from 2011:

On Sunday in his early service sermon, John asked the question: “Does anyone ever offer a blessing over you?” He asked in it such a way that the conclusion was that it’s not very common for people to bless us in real life. I had to think that yes, people do offer blessings over me on a fairly regular basis. Friends who share their caring words and hopes for me, family members who do the same, church members who stop and take the time to speak words over my life.

 Willie Ann is a saint of our church who has lived a life that inspires me. I want to live a life like her. I want to treat people with the love and respect that she does. I want to be filled with joy like she is. If you know Willie Ann, you know exactly what I mean.

I walked into the sanctuary on Sunday morning for the 10:30 service and was met a few steps inside the door by Willie Ann. This is common. Even when Willie Ann is not the greeter, she stands at the back of the church and kisses and hugs and speaks to everyone she can get her hands on.

Willie Ann has quite a grip, by the way. As I entered the worship space, she gripped my left wrist firmly with her thin, aged hand. “Hello, you little angel!” she exclaimed. “Good morning!” I said and hugged her best I could without the use of my left arm. “You are God’s gift to us!” she exclaimed.

“Thank you, Willie Ann,” I replied, brushing off her words. “You’re so sweet to me.”

She gripped harder and demanded my eye contact. “You are God’s gift to us. The day you came here was one of our church’s very best days. You work hard and you are such a servant of the Lord. You are God’s gift to us.”

As tears filled my eyes, she kissed my cheek and released me and was off to offer her blessing to the person behind me. I hope that wherever you work, wherever you worship, and whatever you do, you have a Willie Ann who stands in your corner and reminds you that you’re a gift.

Psalm 40:1-3

To read the whole passage for today, click here.

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry. 
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure. 
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord.
 Psalm 40:1-3

I waited patiently for the Lord…

He drew me up from the desolate pit…

He put a new song in my mouth…

Many will…put their trust in the Lord.

This picture of the Psalmist waiting patiently, even in a desolate place, strikes me as appropriate for this year. It’s Advent, a time when we wait. We practice this waiting every year, as we gather with prayers and songs and the lighting of candles and we remember that Christmas is not about the shopping and the parties–or even the family gatherings.

But in some ways, it seems as if we have been waiting all year. Here in Advent, the truth is that we have been waiting since Lent. Some liturgically sensitive people have mused that it feels like Lent never really ended and we are still waiting for Easter.

When we are waiting, the temptation to go back to whatever we are used to is often our companion. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness and longed to go back to Egypt. God was taking them to a new land, and they decided they preferred the comfort of the old one (Exodus 16), even if it meant death.

This year, the temptation to go back to “normal” is strong. (Whatever that means–I have a friend that always jokes that “normal” is just a setting on the dryer.) I hear it all the time as I talk to people, this desire for things to be normal again. The desire to get back to how things used to be.

I remember when I was preparing to say my goodbyes in Henderson, leaving my ministry of 18 years and so many people we love, and someone said to me, “Things won’t be the same around here.” I replied, “They wouldn’t have been anyway.” Things change all the time–we change, they change, circumstances change. Every day things are different than they were before. There are just times and seasons when the change is more profound and obvious. Change is inevitable. Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

But what if…while we are waiting, even waiting in desolation, sorrow, and an all out miry bog…God is doing a new thing?

What if the reward for our patience and our waiting isn’t that we will return to singing the old, familiar songs we love so much, but that God will plant a new song in our mouths and our hearts? What if, upon being drawn out of the miry bog, our feet find solid ground in a newer, higher, more lovely place than what we knew before?

And what if our patience yields a new song that not only turns out to be even more wonderful than the old, familiar songs, but also causes many to see, fear, and put their trust in the Lord?

I’m thinking that might be worth the wait.

Revelation 20:1-6

You can read all of today’s passage here.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Rev. 20:1-3

The word* I have chosen today is WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Really, this passage on the last day of the third week of Advent in the year of our Lord 2020?

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Gentle reader, just a reminder that Revelation is apocalypse–and “apocalypse” means an unveiling. It’s not a book of predictions, but a book that speak about the reality of the world as it was at the time of its writing and what the author can envision happening in the realm of God.

In his book Unraptured, Zack Hunt writes, “Apocalypse is a call to repent and an invitation to participate in God’s liberating, justice-restoring work in the world. Apocalypse isn’t a call to figure out secret codes that will unlock a prophetic map to the future. Apocalypse calls us to be vigilant of the signs, but only so that we will be ready to stand up to the false prophets at work in the world, name them for what they are, and resist, not through acts of violence, but through Christlike love for our neighbors. This is how we work out our salvation in the last days” (page 195).

Anyway, I repent of this holy mess. Tomorrow we will be back to the gospel. Today, may God add his blessing to the reading of even this word.

*God’s word bears fruit even still, so disregard my own cynicism if you were able to find a word and a hope that reaches to you from the text. I feel like it would have been better left for the hardcore daily lectionary readers to tackle rather than being presented without context as our reading for today. (Please note: I am the one who determined the daily readings way back in November.)

Luke 1:24-25

You can read the whole passage of scripture here:

24After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:24-25

One of the things I remind my church as we study the Bible is that our own life experiences will change the way we hear and understand and notice scripture. When we read by ourselves, there are word and ideas that will stand out in this particular reading of the text because of something that is going on in your own life. When we study and read together, there is understanding another will bring to a well-worn text in our own Bibles as they share their own experiences against it. It’s part of the pedagogy behind our Advent devotional design this year–reading scripture, allowing the Spirit to speak to us about what stands out, then gathering to briefly share what we’ve noticed about the previous 2-3 days readings.

During Corona-tide, as I have read scripture, there are particular words and phrases that stand out to me in a new way.

Elizabeth remaining in seclusion for five months is something I hadn’t exactly paid attention to before this reading. I might have passed a Bible trivia quiz about it, but I never really thought about what it meant for Elizabeth to conceive a child and then remain in seclusion for five months (until Mary arrives for her visit, perhaps?).

This year being as it is, however, I hear that loud and clear this morning. Those of us who have been able to practice seclusion during this pandemic have a new understanding of what that means, I suppose.

Elizabeth’s seclusion was not part of a public health crisis, or, I’m assuming, anything imposed on her. I plan do a little more reading about this today, but I wonder if it had more to do with what was out there or with what was inside of her? Was it because of her age and the general public’s inability to understand the miracles of God for her sake? Was it because she was determined to keep herself and her baby safe and things were always very safe in the hill country of Judah? Or was it because she was aware of the great gift she now carries and her desire to exist with this mystery? God is at work in Elizabeth’s life and she is keenly aware of it, and one way or another, she isolates herself and hides away for this season.

As we continue in varying degrees of seclusion, may we be aware that God is at work within us and around us as well.

Today’s O Antiphon:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, you order all things with strength and gentleness: Come now and teach us the way to salvation. Come, Lord Jesus.

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises, the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever. Amen.

Luke 1:13-17

See the whole passage for today here.

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:13-17

Today, I’m simply struck by the graciousness of God, who sent John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, entrusting them to raise him, so that there would be someone (a prophet) to prepare the way of the Lord.

Yesterday, I prepared the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving for the Christmas Eve bulletin. (Yikes, by the way. Christmas Eve is next week!) In that prayer, we thank God for creating the world and for creating us in God’s image. We speak of our rebellion and God’s refusal to reject us.

“When we rebelled against you refusing to trust and obey you, you did not reject us, but still claimed us as your own. You sent prophets to call us back to your way.” (That version is from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA.)

Ahead of Incarnation, God sent a prophet to embody his calling, to prepare people to understand and receive what was happening.

Out of great love for the people God created in God’s holy image, God sends prophets to prepare hearts and minds to receive him, again and again. Our memories are short. Our steps are faltering. Our ways are crooked and we get away with whatever we can some days.

And yet, again and again, God sends gifts that prepare us to receive him, to make ready our hearts and lives for his appearing.

2 Peter 1:5-11

Read the whole passage for today here. must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. 10Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. 11For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. 2 Peter 1:5-11

Faith is a gift from God. We don’t earn faith, just like we do not earn our salvation. God is the one who provides for our faith and salvation.

But it is possible to receive a gift and never really open it or use it. One year Jason gave me an inexpensive, yet complexly wrapped and seemingly difficult to use, lens for my iPhone. I hadn’t asked for it, and wasn’t sure how it worked, and it was December and I was tired, and I guess I never did open it because when we were getting ready to move to North Carolina, I found the lens, still in its original packaging, in a box in my closet.

How obnoxious of me, I know. Like really–I never even took the time to figure out how to use it? I love taking pictures with my phone, which is why my sweet husband thought to give me this accessory.

So it is with faith, which is what I think is at least part of the epistle author’s point.

Support your faith with goodness

and goodness with knowledge

and knowledge with self-control

and self-control with endurance

and endurance with godliness

and godliness with mutual affection

and mutual affection with love.

Don’t leave the gift of faith unopened and unexplored and unused. There are so many gifts within that one gift–so many possibilities, and so many ways your for faith to not be one dimensional and tightly wrapped up…but developed and released and shared.

Isaiah 61:1-3

The whole Isaiah passage for today is here.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Isaiah 61:1-3

As I read this for the fifth or sixth time today, the word that stands out to me is provide in verse 3.

I think about all the people I have seen mourning. I think about all the times I have mourned. I think about all the ones who are mourning this year…this month (goodness, so many of my loved ones have lost some of their own loved ones in just the last month).

I’ll never forget being in line at one of those superstores in December a few years ago, and the sixty-something man in front of me asking the twenty-something cashier if she was ready for Christmas.

“Oh, I don’t really enjoy Christmas anymore. My mom died in December when I was a kid, and Christmas just makes me so sad.”

Really, this sweet cashier, telling her truth to a stranger who asked her an infamous December small talk question. My heart contracted and expanded as I took in her words and her expression and her obvious pain.

The man, however, had his own response. He gave a little uncomfortable laugh and replied, “Well, don’t you think it’s time to get over that?”

Oh, the look on her face. I’ll never forget seeing his words, his demands of her to stop making him uncomfortable, really, affect her.

Of course, when it was my turn to check out, I spoke softly to her and told her I was touched by her story and I was so sorry for her loss and I understood why Christmas was so hard and that is ok. “I’m used to people like him,” she told me. “No one understands.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to…provide for those who mourn…

It’s not on those who mourn to get it together and put on a happy face and just get over it already. It’s part of our calling to provide for the ones who mourn. To bring to them the goodness, grace, peace, hope, joy…the garland, the oil, the mantle.

It’s on us to demonstrate that their mourning is tender to God. That God will meet them in their grief and sadness and not demand that they feel differently, but rather, give them gifts within their mourning and grow them into something beautiful, rooted in where they began.

I still pray for this woman I met at the superstore in December. And I think about her as I think about so many others who struggle with the season. It’s more people than seems obvious–I know that because, as a pastor, I hear those stories. And i know that lots of people put on a brave face for family or friends or society in general, and pretend to be jolly and joyful as the days darken and the holiday draws near.

May we be those who partner with God in providing for those who mourn.

Psalm 147:15

You can find the whole text for today here.

[God] sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. Ps 147:15

I love the imagery of this Psalm.

In particular, for today, I love the imagery of God’s word running swiftly on the earth.

A few weeks ago, as we finished the 22 Sunday sermon series from the book of Acts, we read about Paul’s journey to Rome to stand before the Emperor in Acts 28. As he neared Rome, farther than it seemed he had been yet in the world–outside of his missions to Asia and Macedonia and Greece–he was greeted and cared for by people who already had become followers of Jesus.

God’s word had run more swiftly than Paul had.

In reflecting on that truth, and the rest of Acts, I said this: “The good news [God’s word] is carried in an outward direction still. It is unhindered by our flawed attempts to live faithfully and share it. It is unhindered by our lack of understanding and inability to grasp how wide and how deep and how great is God’s love. It will not be contained in the boxes we have created and behind the lines we have drawn to keep others away from it. It will cross every line. It will break every barrier. The good news will not wait for us to get there first. When we decide to go that far, we will see that God is already there, changing lives, upending plans, rearranging hearts.”

In my experience, God’s word is often running more swiftly than I am able to run, and more swiftly than even the whole church can manage.

Two thousand years into this, we are still finding that God’s word is bigger, wider, and faster than we could have imagined and it seems like we are catching up only to find that it has already been everywhere we determine to go (or not go). While we were drawing our lines or making our lists of who was in and who was out, God’s word was running swiftly to be with people we were trying to exclude and keep out. When we finally decide to venture out and find people to declare loved by God, we find that God has loved them all along.

I suppose if I could catch up, if I were able to run swiftly enough to keep pace with God’s word, I might begin to suspect that what I am chasing is not God’s word at all, but my own slow ideals and words.

And so I keep training and running a little bit farther and faster all the time.

(I kind of love that my word for today is “word,” and that when God’s word is mentioned in scripture, our default is to think about scripture itself, but we also know the mysterious reality is that God’s word is Jesus Christ. When we allow God to call us farther into our understanding of what this means, we will once again be stunned by the swiftness of God’s word.)