Category Archives: Christmas

Riding Into the Darkness

16460554715_7e0e09e482_cLast month I wrote here about the disappointment I felt when a physician diagnosed my chronic knee pain as the early stages of osteoarthritis.   She said that my marathon running days were over.  Her diagnosis has felt like a dark shadow creeping into my life, robbing me of my identity as a runner.   I recognize that I am over reacting.  After all I can still walk and bike and paddle and swim.  I can remain active if I choose.  Yet running remains something I embrace, something I share with many of my buddies, even in the dark days of winter.

The season of Advent comes during the shadowy, short days of December.  In Minnesota we often drive to and from work in the dark. It is challenging to find ways to get outdoors for exercise.  Thus the darkness often can be internalized.   A favorite Advent scripture verse captures the season’s gloom and yet offers hope.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

One recent Saturday two of my running buddies invited me for a winter bike ride.  We each have one of those fat tire bikes that make possible riding in snow.  It was still dark as we started off, our headlamps pointing the way. As we rode the Gateway Trail, the sun rose and the clouds turned pink and red. It was beautiful morning and I gave thanks for chance to ride with friends.  I adapted Isaiah, thinking, “Those who ride in darkness have seen a great light.”

I continue to miss running.  When I drive pass runners, I feel a pang of sorrow.  I wish that I could tie up my running shoes and go for a quick run around the local trails.  Yet I recognize that my emotional attachment to running will fade and that I am capable of finding other ways to be outdoors.  My identity as a runner is not my core.   My simple daily prayer has become, “Lord, let me rest in my identity as your beloved child.”

As Isaiah states, “a great light shines.” The promise of God’s love continues to illuminate our days.  Jesus’ birth is celebrated in the depth of winter because Christ is the light of the world that shines in our darkness.   On Sunday, with the whole church, I can sing

Silent Night, Holy Night, Son of God, love’s pure light!
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

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Home for the Holidays?

My college was 3000 miles from my home.  Naturally I flew during the short winter break.   Once I was in Minneapolis for a connecting flight but a snow storm swelled and all flights were cancelled.   I remember looking out at the night, watching the snow swirl and wondering if I would get home for Christmas.

That memory has power today as I reflect on how many people in our world have no shelter.  The Syrian refugee crisis has made the homeless a daily part of our news cycle.   Economic and political refugees from Mexico and Central America continue to seek a home in our nation.  Aid agencies and churches seek to serve the homeless in our affluent cities.

Nativity by artist Shelia Diemert

And at the heart of my pondering is the story of Christmas itself.   A young couple forced by political powers to make a journey to Bethlehem.  There Mary gave birth to her son in a stable, because they had no place to stay.  A short time later the new family was forced to flee to Egypt because King Herod felt threatened, insecure.   Being homeless seems to be a key part of the ancient Christmas narrative.

Or at least it makes me ponder, just what is home?  Is it a place, a shelter, a palace or a shack?  Or a set of relationships?  As Robert Frost wrote, Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.   Or is home knowing your place in the universe?

As I read the Gospels, Jesus rarely had a permanent residence.  His early life in Nazareth is not described.  He himself said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).  What he did have was a network of friends, disciples, supporters, family.  And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35).

The value of home ownership in our society is clear.  I have supported Habitat for Humanity for years and have seen the power a house can have for a family. To be without shelter is tragic.   But a house is not always “home.”  As another old proverb says, Home is where the heart is.   Where we feel connected and loved and our fears dissipate.  Jesus probably felt at home wherever he went, because he lived connected to God and others.   That same interconnection is for all creation, including you and me.

Eventually that snow storm in Minneapolis passed and flights resumed to Seattle.   I made it home for Christmas and celebrated with family and friends.  Yet the memory of that layover serves as a reminder that I remain connected to Christ and others wherever I am.  My truest home rests in Christ Jesus.

Where do you find your truest sense of home?

Advent Conspiracy: Give More

AC_header_LWI_NEWLast Sunday, as part of the Advent Conspiracy, I preached on “Spend Less” and shared a specific story about an alternative giving idea. Nancy W. Gavin started a tradition in her home of placing a small white envelope in the Christmas tree. Inside the envelope was a very special gift. You can read her original inspiring story (published in Woman’s Day December 14, 1982) here.

The main reason I “Spend Less” on Christmas gifts (that are often given out of guilt or custom) is so that I can truly “Give More” in the Spirit of Christ. As an Advent Conspiracy pastor wrote,

We know what you’re thinking. “Wait, didn’t they just say I should spend less, and yet here they are telling me to give more? What gives?” The most powerful, memorable gift you can give to someone else is yourself. And nobody modeled this more than Jesus. So what does this look like for you? Tickets to a ball game or the theater? A movie night? The main point is simple: When it comes to spending time with those you love, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

A strong Christmas memory from childhood was opening our special family present. It was often a simple board game: Clue or Mousetrap or Trivial Pursuit. We would then play the game together, enjoying the friendly competition. I have no memory of who won or lost, but I do remember the powerful sense of family joy. My parents practiced “Give More” in that simple present.

 

After my sermon on the white envelope someone talked with me about starting their own white envelope tradition in their family. I gave him a few ideas on what projects he might consider. One was our local food shelf. Another idea is to give a gift from the ELCA gift catalog, such as a goat or pig to a family in the developing country or a week’s tuition for a seminary student. You can learn more about such good gifts at the here

The practice of “Give More” is at the heart of the Christmas story. Jesus gave himself for us. In the babe of Bethlehem, God came to us in a simple child, vulnerable and poor. As Paul reminds us

Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. 5 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. 6 He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion. (Phil 2:4-8, The Message)

How might you “Give More” this Christmas?

Lord Jesus, thank you for giving yourself. Teach me to give in new ways.

Advent Conspiracy Intro

AC_header_LWI_NEW

The season of Advent begin on Sunday, December 1st. Advent includes the four Sundays prior to Christmas.  This Advent Resurrection Lutheran Church is participating in the Advent Conspiracy.  Too often the season of Advent is a whirlwind of gift-buying and party-preparation that misses out on the centrality of Jesus’ birth. The Advent Conspiracy seeks to reinvigorate the purpose of the season by refocusing our attention on Jesus.

The Advent Conspiracy (AC) was started by church pastors several years ago as a way to keep Jesus central during this hectic season. (You can read about it here)

As the AC states

We all want our Christmas to be a lot of things. Full of joy. Memories. Happiness. Above all, we want it to be about Jesus. What we don’t want is stress. Or debt. Or feeling like we “missed the moment”. Advent Conspiracy is a movement designed to help us all slow down and experience a Christmas worth remembering. But doing this means doing things a little differently. A little creatively.

Christmas Angels

The four Sundays of Advent each have a special focus.

December 1
Worship Fully 

AC_Worship_ICONChristmas marks the moment where God’s promise was fulfilled and love took form, tiny fingers and all. It is a moment that deserves our full attention and praise. We put Worship Fully as AC’s first tenet because we believe the level of our involvement at Christmas is based entirely on how much we are celebrating Christ’s birth. He deserves celebration; one that is creative, loud and directs every heart His way.

For Resurrection we are delighted to welcome Dr. Michael Chan back as he preaches on Daniel 3 and the trust and power of worship.

The other three themes (which will have separate blog posts in the coming weeks) are

December 8
Spend Less

December 15
Give More

December 22
Love All.

What do you appreciate about the season of Advent?

Lord Jesus, deepen my love for you and your people throughout the season of Advent.

A Child’s Christmas

Christmas is often associated with children. Santa Claus, flying reindeer and elves combine to make it a child’s fantasy. Like many children I grew up with many deep memories and traditions surrounding the holidays, from staring at the Sear’s toy catalogs to rushing down the hall to open presents. Even as an adult, I catch myself trying to recapture some of the magic of my childhood Christmas’ memories.

ChristmasPageant2011Of course the Biblical story of Christmas adds to that child focus. Though most of the characters are adults (Joseph, shepherds, wise men) the two central characters are Mary, a young adolescent peasant girl, and Jesus, her new born infant. And the unique setting of his birth, a cowshed, provides a wonderful setting for a pageant.

I grew up participating in many Christmas church pageants. I read the lines of Gabriel, the angel, and in my father’s bathrobe I walked with Mary to the manger. In later years, as a pastor, I wrote and preformed Christmas plays that incorporated my own children in the story.  A favorite Christmas memory of mine was when my three children dressed up on Christmas morning to retell the story in their own words.

My daughter this morning shared a link of YouTube Video that retells the Christmas story from a child’s perspective. It has plenty of Biblical inaccuracies, but it captures the joy and wonder of Christmas.

You can watch the video here:  http://youtu.be/zduwusyip8M

Remember, it was Jesus who told his disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Mark 10:14.

Lord Jesus, restore within me a child-like trust in you.

Is This Good News?

Many years ago, I was upstairs, when I heard the voice of my four-year old daughter begin to shout, “I have great news, great news.” She ran up the stairs as fast as she could, continuing this refrain, ” I have great news, great news!” When she got reached the top of the stairs, she was nearly out of breath, but continued to say, “It’s great news.” Finally, I asked her, “Suzanne, What is the great news?” Her eyes were wild with excitement as she said “Oh, daddy. Pizza Hut is giving away free Beauty and the Beast characters!”

Now for my four-year old, that was great news; but for me it was not so great. I mean, if Pizza Hut was giving a car with every pizza, that would be great news. Great news often depends on the ears of the hearer.

I think of that when I read the Advent story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.

Annunciation by He Qi

Annunciation by He Qi

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

After a brief conversation, Gabriel announces to Mary that the child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. When I hear this story many questions race into my mind.

Did Mary hear this as “good news?” What kind of favor is God giving to her? How can a pregnancy be great news when she is still a virgin and is not married? What will her family and friends say? What will Joseph, her fiancé, think?  Does she fully understand what this pregnancy will mean?

The scriptures do not record Mary’s thoughts or feelings. But they do record her words, “Let it be with me according to your word.”  Words of trust and hope.

Sometime we may feel overwhelmed with doubts and fears, questions and stress. Our world can seem so untrustworthy.  Yet we, like Mary, need to hear the good news of God’s favor. God has promised to come to us in Jesus and his kingdom will not end. Like Mary, let us respond in trust, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Lord Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, renew my trust in you.

Hope in the midst of Horror

When I wrote my last post on Advent Storms, I had no idea that our nation would be rocked by the storm of the mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Like so many, I am grief-stricken and shocked at the senseless violence. That small children could be murdered is heart wrenching.

Yet the reality of violence is part of our broken, sinful world. In 2010 there were 1.2 million acts of violent crime in the United States, 14,000 acts of homicides. The fifth commandment is as necessary today as it was 3500 years ago.

(Yet before I become too self-righteous, I am reminded of Jesus’ words “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder’; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,  you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult  a brother or sister,  you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell  of fire(Matthew 5:21-22).)

Children at Play at Resurrection

Children at Play at Resurrection

Still the shock and outrage we experience upon hearing of the tragedy in Newtown demonstrates something else. It is a testimony to our God-created sense of justice and righteousness. We yearn for a world made whole and right. We yearn for a world where violence will not shorten the life of one single child. As the prophet Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

This Sunday I will be preaching on Isaiah 61:1-7. A section of the text offers hope on such a dark day as today.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, . . . to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.

God continues to promise hope to our broken world. We need a savior today more than ever. We need to pray that God brings comfort and hope to all the families affected in Newtown. Though this day is dark, the bright light of Christ will come soon.  Our savior comes for every child, and yes, even for you.

Xmas SH Photo 12

Lord Jesus, wrap your strong arms around all those who are grieving the death of loved one. Pour out on them the healing oil of your Spirit and the great promise of your resurrection.  May your light shine in our darkness.  Amen