The Light is Coming

Last Christmas Eve I found myself sitting in an unfamiliar place – in the pews.

It was the first time in a while I hadn’t been asked to deliver a Christmas Eve sermon. It was the first time in more than a few years I didn’t arrive early at the church to shepherd a community through experiencing love, joy, hope and peace in the gift of the promised Child. It had been some time since I hadn’t sprinted to church from a quick family dinner to make sure that when we lifted the candles and sang Silent Night we knew for sure, if only for a moment, that all is calm and all is bright.

Instead, my wife and I spent part of our Christmas Eve a year ago listening to one of our friends lead his congregation. We did our best to find our way through the hymnal, singing those old songs in a strange place. We prayed with our friend as he prayed for people like us, those struggling to find the joy of Christmas in the midst of the pain that December sometimes brings. We made the walk down the center aisle, feeling the stares trained on us as we walked to receive the grace we needed more than ever in bread and a cup. We nodded with our friend as he announced those bold words from John’s Gospel – The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Christmas Eve 2016 marked the 17th day our daughter had spent in the NICU. 17 days of highs and lows. 17 days of doctors and nurses. 17 days of rigorous hand-washing. 17 days of rising in hope and falling with despair in the digital reading of a hospital monitor.

A year later we know we are the lucky ones, blessed with a healthy daughter thanks to the skill of a trained medical staff and the generosity of a gracious God.

And as I prepare to make up for last year with morning and evening sermons this Christmas Eve, one of the many things I now know first-hand is the depth of hope packed in that phrase that has become central to the church’s Christmas message.

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it – the words both announce how God has come to be with us and the life-shaking implications of such a gift. The truth that God comes into our world in a child, moves into our neighborhood as Eugene Peterson has put it, runs so much deeper than we have imagined.

God’s entrance into our lives is more than just the light waiting to outlast whatever forces darkness can throw at God. Instead, the story of Christmas is the story of the Light on the move. The gift is nothing less than God coming to overwhelm the darkness with a force it cannot endure. Christmas comes not just as an inevitable victory against an enemy determined to do battle, but as a forward march of the Light on a mission to defeat the enemy in every way, shape and form it dares present itself.

The Light has come into the world to break the will of the forces that hold us and our neighbors in bondage. Christmas comes to break through the pain that prevents people from experiencing life. The child comes to show people wandering in the darkness the way of the Light. The angels sing the song of God’s inevitable victory over fear, hatred and injustice. Joy to the World is no sentimental song of the status quo but a victory anthem of those who have experienced the power of light freeing them from the darkness that had bound them for far too long.

Christmas isn’t reserved for those who can’t wait to sing the songs of the season. The Light comes into the world to restore those paralyzed by worry. God comes here to heal those bound by anxiety. The Child comes to lead those home who have lost their way. The gift is that God is coming to blast through every bit of the darkness with the power of light and love.

The good news is that God isn’t going to wait. Love is coming for us at Christmas. The Light is coming to shatter the darkness so we can see and love again.

Merry Christmas.

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Declutter

Our house has to be cleaned before it can really be cleaned – it’s that bad. It’s probably always been that way, but it’s a whole lot easier to notice after a year of accumulating all the stuff new parents do. As my wife and I were lamenting the state of our house the other night, one of us said to the other, “Our biggest problem is that there are a whole lot of things in rooms that don’t belong there.”

Clutter, of course, isn’t a problem reserved for the kitchen counter. Clutter is one of the biggest obstacles to growing in the spiritual life.

Advent, this season of preparation, is a great opportunity to evaluate our lives and determine what is essential to life with God and what is an extra that prevents us from experiencing the gifts God wants to give us.

One of the easiest places to see how and where our lives have gotten cluttered is by taking stock of what grabs our attention. One of the most difficult things for anyone in 2017, and particularly for those of us trying to live in a connected relationship with God, is to stay focused on the things that keep us connected with God and with one another.

The opportunities for distraction come before our coffee is made. By lunch we often find ourselves becoming experts on whatever topic has trended. By bedtime we often know much about plenty but little about what we most desperately need.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, then, is what is it that grabs our attention. It’s a conversation that Jesus had again and again with his disciples – probably because they, like us, had a whole lot of trouble keeping their attention trained on Jesus even when he was right next to them. They didn’t have college football to take up their time, but they did struggle to make sense of politics, they did get tempted by the allure of comfort, and they spent a lot of time spouting their own opinions instead of listening to the One who had come to show them a better way.

The uncomfortable truth is that the topics which grab our attention are the topics that shape our lives. We can know a lot about the new coach at Tennessee but that doesn’t do much for us when we lose our job. We can have passionate opinions about the President’s latest tweet but they don’t help us sit in silence to hear a word from a holy God. We can spend a whole lot of time finding the perfect gift and still miss the gift of the presence of the ones we love.

The church, at least those churches that follow the liturgical calendar, often begins Advent by listening to Jesus call his disciples to watch and pray. Last week we listened to the words of Jesus from Luke 21 in which he told the disciples to focus their attention on learning how to spot the signs of his second coming. What he wanted them to learn was how to focus their attention on what truly mattered.  What they really needed wasn’t to marvel at the beauty of the Jerusalem temple but to pay attention to the signs of God’s work in the world.

In many ways that is what this season is all about – learning how to retrain our eyes to see what really matters. Advent is a chance to make room in our lives to receive the Lord who will come again. These four weeks are an opportunity to clean out the things that aren’t essential so we can notice when God moves into our neighborhood. It is an invitation to recommit ourselves to finding the life that is found in receiving the gift God wants to give us.

During the course of the last couple of months I’ve been journeying through the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius with the help of Kevin O’Brien’s beautiful book, The Ignatian Adventure. There is plenty of wisdom in these pages. And yet much of it can be distilled into this – learn how to repent of the patterns that separate us from God and live into those patterns that help us spot God’s presence in our midst.

We have been created for the purpose of loving, worshiping and serving God – and the key to such a life is, “to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free us from them to the extent that they hinder us from it.”

What is it that prevents us from loving, serving and worshiping God? Once you know that, get rid of it. What is it that helps us see all that God wants to show us? Make room for that.

Get rid of clutter and make room for light to shine. This isn’t just good advice for a cleaner kitchen. This is how we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

 

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A Great Interruption

You can’t help but notice it if you pay attention.  When we stop talking long enough to listen and look up from our phones long enough to observe, we see it on people’s faces, we hear it in the way they talk, we can even feel it in the way they breathe. People are tired; but more than that. We’ve rushed past tired and exhausted and made our way to full-blown weariness.

We can sing knowingly the Old Gospel Line – I am tired, I am weary I am worn – because we know it. As we notice the clerk in the grocery story line or the neighbor in the pew or the colleague just trying to hold it all together, we know this is true. We see it in these strangers, because it would be too painful to see it in ourselves.  But we know it there too.

We know it all too well – what it is like when everything comes hurdling towards you and everything you have tried to keep hidden and beneath the surface finally breaks through. We know what it is like when all the stuff we have to do and all the emotions we have been feeling get the best of us and we just can’t hold it down anymore.

We know this weariness.

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We are weary with anxiety that what we have hoped for might never come, weary from sensing that the dreams God has put on our hearts might actually be an impossible vocation. We are weary of being unable to hold up our end of the bargain and live up to our responsibilities, wanting desperately to be there for everyone we care about while knowing deep down that if something doesn’t change there is no way we are going to make it.  We are weary from seeing our friends and our loved ones hurt and feeling completely powerless to do a single thing about it.

We are weary of the news, how weary we are of and from the news, weary from the words and images and sounds that serve as a never ending cacophony of bad news. And those images – we are so weary of those images – another attack, another shooting, another leader who isn’t who we thought they would be or who we hoped they would become. We are weary, most of all I think, of how we talk to one another, or how we talk past each other and how we talk about each other.  We are weary because we are so exhausted and overwhelmed by the way the latest crisis of the day is no longer an event that radically upends someone’s life, but instead is just another opportunity to be outraged and a new excuse to rip someone apart.

We know where it really counts that the status quo won’t cut it, that there is a wide gulf between the way things are and the way we need them to be.  What we need more than anything else is an interruption from the chaos and way out of our weariness, even if we can’t see how or where it will come from.

This is the message of this Advent, this watching and waiting that we are doing – watching for signs of light and waiting for a new way despite the piles of evidence that scream otherwise.

In the midst of all this weariness and hurt and pain and anguish and fear and dread we do what we always have done – we watch and we wait for the Light of All People.  We watch and we hope in expectation for something new that comes into a world where not everyone has a place to stay and in the midst of a story that painfully reminds us of the meaning of Holy Innocents. We wait and we pray for Good News of Great Joy even, and especially, as our vision to see God in every person still seems horribly dimmed, as our friends still get sick, as our parents still decline, as our neighbors still fear for their lives and as the threats and the forces and the powers and the principalities still rage on.  In the midst of it all, we watch and we pray and we hope and we wait.

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We wait in hope for Christmas because Christmas is the interruption we desperately need.  That’s what this day is. Christmas, that God became like us for us – comes as the Great Interruption we had hoped for even before we knew to hope for it. Christmas comes to shatter the awfulness and brokenness of what is and to lead us to imagine and participate in the beautiful and holy of what now can be.

This baby we are waiting for again comes to interrupt the exhaustion of first-time parents wondering if they can be everything this precious gift needs them to be.  The Prince of Peace comes to interpret our unceasing thirst for vengeance.  The Word of God comes to give us the words we need to be people who see God in every person, even and especially when that gets hard.  The Teacher who said my burden is light comes to interrupt our despair and depression to remind us that despite it all hope isn’t lost, because hope never fails.

And so we wait.  With tired faces, full calendars, and short fuses that spring from weary and burdened souls, we wait.  We keep watching and we keep praying and most of all we keep waiting – for we know that into the weariness of our burdened lives Christmas is coming with the force of a Great Interruption.

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The Gift of Hope in Depressing Days

Where I live the sky has been particularly cloudy this week.  And, of course, that feels about right considering the week we’ve had.

It’s been hard not to feel the dread and the gloom reflected in the sky from the national conversation we’re having spawned by Donald Trump and the local conversation we’re having in the part of the world where I live and that I love over, of all things, the appropriateness of religious guidelines for work parties at the local university.

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In the midst of these controversies, whose flames are fanned by the 24-hour news cycle and the rage of the internet, it’s hard not to get depressed.  That despair and depression comes because despite our own participation in the screaming and the shouting and the posting online and the need to be justified in our positions,  we all deeply want to be part of something better. We want our lives to be about more than being right or having the right to be outraged or winning the battle of this particular day. We want to be part of a community and a country where we can move beyond the differences and the divisions and find a way to love one another and suffer with one another and rejoice with one another and experience meaning and healing with one another.

Of course, living that kind of life is getting harder every day. That’s why we’re disillusioned, because it is getting more and more difficult to imagine the life we really want as we deal with real fears about how to keep our families and loves ones and our nation safe while coming to terms with living in a world where distance and borders provide less safety and security than they ever have before. And so, when you put it all together it is really hard not to be resigned to hopelessness.

And as we race towards Christmas we are constantly reminded of that word – hope. It is in bold print on the magazine covers reminding us that this CAN be the year we have the perfect holiday meal – you know the one that inspires us not to plot to kill one another while reaching for the dessert. It is is on our screens as we watch one of the 235 sappy Christmas movies available to us on Hallmark or ABC Family.  And it is on the lips of our friends as they remind us that we still have time to finish our shopping, we still have time to complete all of those projects, and we can still get into the Spirit of the season, whatever that means.

But in the midst of the stories that dominate our news and the lesser angels that seem to be winning the day, the hope we are being sold doesn’t feel nearly hopeful enough.  It doesn’t seem to have the power and the weight to speak into the real problems and the real fears that so many of us are facing.  The hope of the Christmas greeting card industry doesn’t feel like it offers enough to enable us to live into the big visions of our national story, much less the even bigger vision of the Kingdom of God.

That’s because it isn’t. With a nod to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the hope of December is cheap hope.  But fortunately for us, the hope of Advent is the hope of the world.  And the hope of Christmas isn’t an empty hope or a hope that we can move on from once the calendar turns to 2016.  It is not a hope that you can toss away once you are done with it.  That’s because true hope could never be called cheap, because hope isn’t a feeling.  Hope is a presence that cost someone their life.

Hope is more than just an idea that makes us smile as we sip a warm beverage.  Instead, hope is something we can count on because hope comes from God.  We can depend on hope and we can cling to hope and we can hold on to hope in the worst of times because hope it is God’s gift that comes to us and stays with us. Because it comes from God, Paul can say with confidence that hope never disappoints. Instead, hope is what we experience when God pours love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Indeed, hope never fails because it comes from God, who said that the powers and forces of darkness never get the last word.

That’s why on Christmas Eve so many of us will punctuate our family dinners with a trip to buildings with a cross at the center and holy spaces punctuated with bright candles. We light those flames because we need to believe it is still true – now more than ever – that hope isn’t something you can extinguish.  That’s one we’ve learned by experience – because God knows we’ve tried.

We make our way there because the essential truth of the faith happens to be the truth we need – that no matter how bleak it gets, darkness can never overwhelm the light.  Light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overwhelm it – you might have heard that. And that light isn’t just a metaphor but a real presence that keeps you moving especially when you aren’t sure how you are going to take another step. That light is the hope that gives you the strength to keep going when the world has done its best to weigh you down and beat you up. That light is the hope that pushes you to reach out when it feels hopeless, the nudge to somehow believe that one small act of kindness and grace can make a difference in a world gone mad. More than anything hope is what leads you to boldly and defiantly hold up your light in a world that most days seems covered in and addicted to darkness.

A friend once told me that hope was at the heart of my theology, the core of what I believe about God.  And that’s true – I’ve never been able to read the New Testament and come away convinced that hope isn’t real.  The Bible I read describes a life with God that reminds us again and again that we are never resigned to who we have been and that there is never a situation that God can’t improve, redeem or transform.

2015 has been a year where I had to learn that again. It was filled with anxiety and stress and loss and despair accompanied  by deep silence that only real pain can bring to your front door. What I’ve learned, or relearned I guess, is that real hope can’t be scheduled. Instead, it shows up when you need it the most and generally when you least expect it. Isn’t that the real message of this season when we remember that hope comes to us in a child who no one expected much out of who was born to parents that no one paid much attention to in a barn out back because no one could be bothered to make room for them?

Hope is a surprising thing. So maybe it should come as no surprise that as I drove home Wednesday night, despite it all the gloom broke.  As I drove around a curve I was able to look back towards the city I have come to love.  And as I looked back, I saw its downtown buildings and halls of its university. And above them as the sun worked to set, the sky dazzled, brilliant in hues of pink and orange.  It was as if the atmosphere over our little corner of the world had a message for us all.

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Hope is real. Hope never disappoints. Gloom and despair and darkness are ultimately powerless against the presence of light.

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