photoWe have a tree up in our house (see proof to the left!) but no Christmas presents underneath.

It's not that I haven't had time to go shopping . . . I guess I could have made some time if I really wanted to go to the mall (somehow going straight home after work has been more appealing). It's not that I don't like giving gifts or even shopping (when it is has a time limit).

In actuality love giving gifts. I enjoy coming up with creative gift ideas for people I love, and the time shopping to get them doesn't bug me at all. In my house growing up, I was always the designated Christimas wrapper. I'm pretty good at making bows for packages, in fact.

But, I can't seem to get my head into it all this year.  Yet, no matter how I feel, Christmas is coming soon. I've got to get motivated!

I think my resistance stems from this: I don't need anything. The people I am going to give something to don't need anything either.

We live in a country of plenty. Over the travels of this year, I know this fully well.

In America, we "want" is usually incorrectly mixed up with the word "need." Most people I know usually are able to buy something for themself if they really need it or at least save up over a period of time for an item. Sadly, most of us use Christmas to further our dependency on consumerism, in an effort to say we've celebrated the holiday.

Katharine Whitehorn is attributed to saying about our world's obsession with Christmas by saying, " From a commercial point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it." I read this quote and immediately said, "Oh gee."

What's the larger point, when we know as Christians that we are celebrating a spiritual holiday? Is the act of gift-giving really that bad? Of course you sound super spiritual this time of year if you say, "I'm not buying my kids or spouse more than one present." Or, "I'm only giving gifts from alternative Christmas markets" But as we all know, I am not that spiritual and I bet you aren't either.  Maybe there is a balance.

Those three kings did bring Jesus gifts in adoration of his Lordship after all. . . .

I believe what all of us need more of is not piles of presents under the tree with our names on them, but love expressed. Author Harlan Miller said: "Probably theChristmas Presents reason we all go so haywire at Christmas time with the endless unrestrained and often silly buying of gifts is that we don't quite know how to put our love into words."

What we all really need is the gift of each other. People in our lives who risk the vulnerability of telling us what we mean to them. Our risking doing the same. Taking time to make those we love feel special and appreciated. Helping each other remember how much God loves us all.

A congregation member of mine once told me about a new tradition she created in her family. Instead of giving gifts to each other, when they gathered, they all wrote letters. Each member of the family took the time to write a reflective letter about something they'd given/ participated in that was an act of service. And then perched the letters physically on the tree at the family gathering.  After dinner, when everyone sat down in the living room, the small children still got a few presents, but the adults then shared their letters with one another. This ritual became a way to teach the children (and remind each other as adult too) what giving is really all about. And remember that Christmas' emphasis on service is indeed for the entire year, not just December.

I know several churches and families like this one have or are thinking of creative ways to participate in Advent in non-traditional ways. I say bring it on! Share any good ideas you or your family have come up with for alternative giving here in the comment section. I want to learn from you.

In the meantime, I am going to keep staring at my Christmas tree, hoping to get inspired.

Advent 1: Jeremiah 33:14-16

stores-open-at-christmas-eveI’m proud of you for being in church today for the season of busyness is upon us. No longer in the causal days of fall activities, and not yet to the Sunday before Christmas (where everyone seems to feel the call stronger to go to church).  Seemingly it feels like a not-so special day. But, it is in this post-Thanksgiving, early December date that the excitement of the Advent season begins, the four Sundays on the liturgical calendar of the church where we stop and prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ.  This year, we are approaching Advent together as we “Wait With . . .”

Many of us have the “hurry up” part down. Maybe not the waiting . . .

We know how to get things done.

Many of us braved the crowds this weekend and headed to the malls to get the first or second round of our Christmas shopping completed like Kevin and I did. Oh, what insanity.

Many of us took that climb into the attic or on the top shelf in our garage to get our Christmas decorations down and have our house look like a disaster zone for many hours until it all started to come into order.

And, then some of us timed ourselves to see how many Christmas cards we could write before we knew the responsibilities of life and work got to us again this coming week filling our kitchen tables with stamps, address labels and cards galore. There always seems to be something to do this time of year.

But, wait?  That’s what we are talking about today?

This is not just our forte. By nature we are an impatient people. We like to have things OUR way, when WE want it, don’t we?

When will the train come? How long will this grocery line take? How many more miles till we get there?  When will my life get better? When will my husband or wife change? When will I get everything out of life that I wished for?

However, my desire for this Advent season both through the Sunday worship services and the Wednesday night worship services that you and I have the ability to redefine what it means for us to wait for Christmas.  And this year instead of focusing on the typical Advent words like hope, joy, peace and love—we’re going to stick with what it means to wait with others.

We’ll wait together for Christmas to come as part of our spiritual discipline of worship. We’ll hope to see this waiting period not as wasted time or meaningless time. We’ll hope to see this Advent not as punishment . .. “Can’t it just be Christmas already?” We hope this waiting period becomes an opportunity to feel in our bones the urgency of the season, urgency to position our lives through a posture of waiting to receive the love that is ours to have in the kingdom of Christ.

Today, as we begin, the exhortation scripture leads us to begin with is to wait with the prophets, in particular the prophet, Jeremiah.

Who is Jeremiah?

Jeremiah is known in Biblical history as the weeping prophet, an emotionally charged, unlikely spokesman who was called to ministry about one year after King Josiah of Judah began making his reforms in the temple—a key moment in the history of the nation.

I say an unlikely spokesman because Jeremiah was the least likely kind of guy to expect himself called to God’s service.

If you think throughout scripture, all the great leaders or prophets made excuses to God when they were called, some were too young, some were too old, some said they simply didn’t know how to lead. And the same was true of Jeremiah.

He told the LORD that he did not know how to speak, for he was only a child. But, scripture tells us that all of this changed when the LORD reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth reminding him that he put words in his month. There would be no excuses; Jeremiah was equipped for all that was to come.

And spoke Jeremiah did, calling the people of Israel to a life that pleased God.

For the next 40 years he served as God’s spokesman—though when he spoke, as it common with those with spiritual gifts of discernment and prophecy, few listened.  But he kept on keeping on.

One chapter prior to our text’s opening for today; we hear the banner statement over and over again throughout the book, saying "the word of the Lord came toJeremiah_by_Michelangelo Jeremiah."

And this was the context: corruption of the kings of Judah went from ok to worse after its good king Josiah. God allowed invaders to come in the country.  The fall was upon them.

So at this present time, already hundreds of Jerusalem’s residents had been forced by Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar into exile. Soon others would be forced to go as well as Babylon was growing stronger by the day.

We know that it was the 10th year of Zedekiah’s reign, another one of Judah’s kings known for his corruption. Though King Zedekiah had struck a deal with Egypt to hold off Babylon a little bit longer in the previous chapters, thinking he’d provided for himself the security he craved, this too would soon fail.

Above all, it’s a storm of confusion all around as they refused to listen to God.   However, the worst had not happened yet, but any person with common sense could see that hardships were even going increase.

But to everyone’s surprise: this is not the time when the weeping prophet wept.  Oh, to the contrary, at this seemingly impossible juncture, Jeremiah gives a word of hope.

Look with me again at verse 14:

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness the land.”

It’s a promise. It’s a word of restoration. It’s word of the Lord that focuses their attention on their past and not just present that can have redemptive qualities, but on their future.

Seems strange, though, because the people were in mourning. Grief broke out across the land. They were grieving about what could have been. Grief about what will never be. In particular, this grief had everything to do with the loss of David’s dynasty, the history of this family generation after generations leading the people. They were sad to now be even smaller and less significant than they were before. But, to this grief, Jeremiah says, “Don’t call this a tragedy just quite yet.”

Why? Because a “righteous branch” is going to spring forth from David’s line.

If we read this as and Messiah prophetic text (i.e. pointing our attention to Jesus), we see that the one would later be born in David’s city, Bethlehem with Joseph as his father (from the house and lineage of David), then the prophecy came to be. Of course, it didn’t come as the people expected. It didn’t come in the lifetimes of the people who heard this word first. But it did speak for a God who would go with the people through the rocky places of their journey as individual and as a nation and never leave them without hope.

It is true that some prophetic words are harsh throughout scripture, or seem harsh to our ears, but ultimately HOPE is the real motive behind any true prophet’s message. Prophecy is a loving gift of the spirit enabling us who are walking in the darkness of life to see light at the end of the tunnel.

And our exhortation this morning is to wait with prophets like Jeremiah and all the other prophets of our day and time. To wait with expectant ears around those of us whose giftedness is to hear God’s call and then share it with us.  To wait in the coming month in celebration of this righteous branch being born! The fulfillment of the great joy!

We don’t talk a lot about waiting with prophets or even the modern expression of prophecy very much in church because when we simply say the word, prophet, we’re afraid. We’re afraid because of all of the negative experiences we’ve had with folks in our world claiming to know God’s plans, only to have their predictions fall on their face.  We’re afraid of the Kool-Aid, literally.

But what a shame this is. For I believe the false prophets among us have destroyed the good reputation of what is most needed in our time, those who are willing to tell us the truth. Those who are willing to look at what seems like a “bad situation” and give us hope, just as Jeremiah did with Israel.

Have you ever experienced a person with prophetic gifts? And by this I mean a person who told you the truth—not just in every day conversation, but truth-telling at a deeper level, truth-telling that cut to the heart of a situation you sought to hide or ignore?

We love to speak ill of prophetic types (as much as we like them) because it is true their role is to tell us what we don’t want to hear.  Or simply stated, prophetic types can be annoying. They are really good at cramping our style.

In college I had a friend full of these kinds of gifts, prophetic ones. She was a dear to me, however, I didn’t have thick enough skin for her honesty quiet yet. But I would have much to learn.

One afternoon in the middle of my junior first semester, well into the bulk of my education certification coursework, I sat in our shared apartment with this friend. I was practicing my handwriting for my cursive writing class and next up was cutting out letters for my bulletin board making assignment. And this friend took one look at me and the pile of art supplies around me and said, “You’ve got to get out of that major. You’ve got bigger things to do in the world than displaying good handwriting or pretty bulletin boards.”

It was hard to hear of course—I’d planned my whole life around being a teacher and to drop the major mid-way seemed like career suicide.  And not that there is anything wrong with being an elementary teacher, but it wasn’t me.

But, I knew she was right.  I needed her to tell me the truth. I needed to get off the couch and think about going to seminary. And you need those people in your life too.

Where would I be today without that friend? I can imagine, you’ve had prophetic voices that have guided you, re-directed you and  lovingly told you to listen to God afresh also. And without them, you wouldn’t be here today either.

What a great reminder, then this week of Advent is for us to wait with the prophets among us.  To give thanks for Jeremiah, his voice, his passion, his word of hope that we get to see fulfilled on Christmas Eve. And for us, to know that God’s word is alive and well and there are spoke people, given as gifts of grace that help us find our way. Because ultimately what Advent is all about is making more room for God in our lives. And, without prophets we might not know where to start cleaning out the spiritual closets weighing us down.

And, an opportunity to know God is here today—here at this table—ready for us to receive what was broken for us, not just for the sake of being broken, but broken so that God’s light might shine in us and in our dark, dark world. Let us gather and shift our hearts to taste and see that God is good beginning. Let us wait for this prophetic word which is the living bread given for us. Let us eat together in expectation of a God who always gives us hope and never leaves us alone.

AMEN

 Do you open presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?  It's the question of the day!

No matter your traditions (if you are a cultural American or religious Christian alike), the next couple of days are those consumed in the practice of gift giving and recieving. Depending on expectations on both ends, it can often be a stressful time of hoping the other likes what you get and/or being satisfied (or not) with what you received.

But, have any of you gotten a gift this season from someone that you didn't expect already? It happens to me every year and is quiet a quandary.

Consider this story from Will Willimon (former dean of Duke Chapel of that wonderful basketball school where I received my seminary education).

The following could really preach (oh you preachers looking for last minute sermon ideas, read closely), but as I am going a different homiletical direction this year, I thought I'd share it on this blog in hopes that all of us who have a second to take a breath this Christmas Eve will consider the marvel of God's grace given to us in Jesus. It's the gift we could never reciprocate, ever.

Probably most of us have had the experience of receiving, right out of the blue, a gift from someone we really don’t know all that well. And, perhaps, to our consternation, the gift turns out to be nice, something that we didn’t know we wanted and certainly didn’t ask for, but there it is, a good gift from someone who is not really a good friend.

Now, what is the first thing we do in response?

Right. We try to come up with a gift to give in return -- not out of gratitude (after all, we didn’t ask for it) or out of friendship (after all, we hardly even know this person) , but because we don’t want to feel guilty.

We don’t want to be indebted. The gift seems to lay a claim upon us, especially since it has come from someone we barely know. This is uncomfortable; it’s hard to look the person in the face until we have reciprocated. By giving us a gift, this person has power over us.

It may well be, as Jesus says, more blessed to give than to receive. But it is more difficult to receive. Watch how people blush when given a compliment. Watch what you do when your teen-aged son comes home with a very expensive Christmas present from a girl he has dated only twice. "Now you take that expensive sweater right back and tell her that your parents won’t allow you to accept it. Every gift comes with a claim and you’re not ready for her claim upon you." In a society that makes strangers of us all, it is interesting what we do when a stranger gives us a gift.

And consider what we do at Christmas, the so-called season of giving. We enjoy thinking of ourselves as basically generous, benevolent, giving people. That’s one reason why everyone, even the nominally religious, loves Christmas. Christmas is a season to celebrate our alleged generosity. The newspaper keeps us posted on how many needy families we have adopted. The Salvation Army kettles enable us to be generous while buying groceries (for ourselves) or gifts (for our families). People we work with who usually balk at the collection to pay for the morning coffee fall over themselves soliciting funds "to make Christmas" for some family.

We love Christmas because, as we say, Christmas brings out the best in us. Everyone gives on Christmas, even the stingiest among us, even the Ebenezer Scrooges. Charles Dickens’s story of Scrooge’s transformation has probably done more to form our notions of Christmas than St. Luke’s story of the manger. Whereas Luke tells of God’s gift to us, Dickens tells us how we can give to others. A Christmas Carol is more congenial to our favorite images of ourselves. Dickens suggests that down deep, even the worst of us can become generous, giving people.

Yet I suggest that we are better givers than getters, not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people. The Christmas story -- the one according to Luke not Dickens -- is not about how blessed it is to be givers but about how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers.

We prefer to think of ourselves as givers -- powerful, competent, self-sufficient, capable people whose goodness motivates us to employ some of our power, competence and gifts to benefit the less fortunate. Which is a direct contradiction of the biblical account of the first Christmas. There we are portrayed not as the givers we wish we were but as the receivers we are. Luke and Matthew go to great lengths to demonstrate that we -- with our power, generosity, competence and capabilities -- had little to do with God’s work in Jesus. God wanted to do something for us so strange, so utterly beyond the bounds of human imagination, so foreign to human projection, that God had to resort to angels, pregnant virgins and stars in the sky to get it done. We didn’t think of it, understand it or approve it. All we could do, at Bethlehem, was receive it. A gift from a God we hardly even knew.

With four more days of Advent in the Christmas countdown, it's that time of the year when we all get a little crazy, even the most well-meaning, joyful, and kindhearted among us.

Those of us who hate the mall and all things shopping related find ourselves in overcrowded stores with poorly trained temporary workers checking us out, causing scenes of complete chaos when sales prices are not debited to our bank cards. 

Those of us who wait to do everything last-minute are finding it hard to get the sleep we need to keep going as lists and lists of holiday related chores call our names: parties to attend, presents to wrap, and cookies to bake (even though we've already eaten way too many).

Those of us who must prepare to travel to be with loved ones wonder when the laundry is going to be done as the Christmas activities are all-consuming.

For me, yesterday, I thought I might be assaulted in search of a parking space at the Post Office. Then, it appeared that the woman behind me in line might have a temper tantum when she saw how long the line in front of her was!

Yes, it is a time of peace on earth and goodwill toward all, but such is not often felt if you are the mall, if you are in a house full kids needing stocking stuffers, or if you go 100 feet of a Post Office anytime between now and tomorrow (the last day to ensure your Express Mail packages arrive on time).

For these reasons and many more, I was delighted to have stumbled on this great resource of Advent prayers-- self-reflective prayers for almost any December related situation. The author provides a resource to slow us down and be able to see God even in the fury of pre-Christmas activity.  I just felt calmer when I read this prayer:

My brother, Jesus. It happens every year. I think that this will be the year that I have a reflective Advent.

I look forward to Sunday and this new season, Jesus. But all around me are the signs rushing me to Christmas and some kind of celebration that equates spending with love.

I need your help. I want to slow my world down. This year, more than ever, I need Advent, these weeks of reflection and longing for hope in the darkness.

Jesus, this year, help me to have that longing. Help me to feel it in my heart and be aware of the hunger and thirst in my own soul. Deep down, I know there is something missing in my life, but I can’t quite reach for it. I can’t get what is missing.

I know it is about you, Jesus. You are not missing from my life, but I might be missing the awareness of all of the places you are present there.

Be with me, my dear friend. Guide me in these weeks to what you want to show me this Advent. Help me to be vulnerable enough to ask you to lead me to the place of my own weakness, the very place where I will find you the most deeply embedded in my heart, loving me without limits.

Remember in the craziness of whatever you find yourself in on this December 21st that we are all still waiting. And, sometime BIG is about to come-- if only we wait long enough to see it. And the "something" won't be found under any Christmas tree, no matter how much we shop or bake . . . .