Category Archives: Advent

Longest Night

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. — John 1:5

Read:  John 1:1-9, 14

Ponder:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reflect:

Well, the world didn’t end today. Surprise! Surprise! It was the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Here in south central Pennsylvania it was a chilly, gray day complete with a few snow flurries. Night settled in all too fast, and the wind has been howling through the screens ever since.

The good news is that in a few hours, dawn will break. It may be another gray winter day, but the promise of shorter nights and warmer days begins tomorrow. The darkness will never permanently be with us. There is always hope and light and love.

Thanks-Living:

Give thanks for the light. Do something today to spread a little light and a little love. It can be as simple as a smile or as generous as a gift of time or resources. You know the needs; you can be that light.

Photo by Balaji Dutt. Thanks!

No Time for Fear

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. — Isaiah 12:2

Read: Isaiah 12:2-6

Ponder:

“The overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here. The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from a sermon preached in Berlin, second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 1933)

Reflect:

Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Fiscal Cliff, the Mayan Calendar, disease, climate change, war–these words and many others conjure up feelings of fear and anxiety in most folks. Fear and anxiety curve us inward on ourselves and prevent us from experiencing fully the life God desires for us.

Now I’m not suggesting one throw wise, prudent behavior to the wind to follow pure impulse. Not at all. Rather, I believe that we simply cannot let fear corner us into inaction, hate, and avoidance. We can’t afford to turn our homes into little fortresses, ignoring our neighbors and opting out of community.

We serve a creative, relational God who both desires an active and full relationship with us and also intends for us to share such relationships with others. It is all too easy to let natural feelings of fear and anxiety that accompany tragedy to drive us apart and to create a wedge between us and God.

Don’t let that happen. Be defiant in the face of evil and loss. Step into the breach, reaching out to others and sharing the love and hope that is found in Christ. The world needs you, yes you, right now wherever you are. In these dark days, choose to reflect the light.

Thanks-Living:

Today consider writing one or more notes of encouragement and support to the schools in Newtown, Connecticut. Be that candle in the dark by showering a few words of love on those whose lives have been marred by this tragedy.

Newtown Public School District

3 Primrose Street

Newtown, CT 06470

 

Sandy Hook Elementary School

12 Dickinson Drive

Sandy Hook, CT 06482

(Photo by anaeastudio. Thanks!)

My Prayer

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best… — Philippians 1:9-10a

Read: Philippians 1:3-11

Ponder:  “What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.” — St. Augustine

Reflect: Paul wrote his letter to the believers at Philippi while under house arrest in Rome. He had every reason to be discouraged, but instead he overflows with joy, thanksgiving, and encouragement for this young worshiping community. He praises their generosity, and infuses the entire letter with a sense of hope and belief that this group of Christians will, through love, discern how to serve and be the light of Christ to all whom they encounter.

Sometimes it seems we live in a very dark world. Hate, anger, violence, and fear move like heavy fog across the landscape of our days and nights, settling in life’s deep valleys and the remote crevices of our hearts and minds. We cry to God in the face of injustice, evil, and pain. How can this be?

Paul would, I think, encourage us to live on in love, to continue to find joy in every circumstance, and to trust in God’s gracious presence and never-ceasing love for even the most broken parts of this world.

Even in the darkest and coldest days of winter, light is just beyond the horizon–waiting to dawn and spread hope like sweet honey. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ keep you through the darkest hours of night, assuring you of the promise of light and the presence of love. This is my prayer for you.

Thanks-Living:

Light a candle tonight for peace in the face of evil, brokenness, and darkness. Watch how one small light begins to outshine the dark. So it is with love; love conquers all. Indeed, love has already won. Pray for strength, courage, and wisdom to share and spread love as we await Christ’s coming again into our world.

Photo by thienzieyung and Klearchos Papoutsis. Thanks!

Light

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. — Luke 1:78-79

Read: Luke 1:68-79

Ponder:

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars. — Og Mandino

Reflect:

When I lived in North Dakota, one of my favorite things to do on a crisp, clear winter night was to bundle up, go outside, and gaze into the star-spangled sky. Out on the rural prairie, without the interference of city lights and traffic noise, one gets a real sense of the enormity of the cosmos and the handiwork of the Creator. One also gets a very real picture of just how small and insignificant a single human can appear in the scale of the universe.

Yet, we do not have to feel insignificant because scripture reminds us that God knows the very number of hairs on our head. We are wonderfully and fearfully made and deeply loved. Even in the darkest hour of night, we rest assured that dawn will break, bringing new light and renewed hope. Jesus is coming again to bring light that the darkness cannot overcome. Yes, the stars are lovely to look upon, but it is the light of Christ that shows us the way to real life that never ends.

Thanks-Living:

Make time to go outside and look at the stars. Tonight you might even have the opportunity to see the Geminid Meteor Shower in all its glory. Give thanks to the Creator of the universe for the majesty and glory that seem to expand before your eyes.

Today also marks the commemoration of St. Lucy, a young Sicilian Christian martyr who lived during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. While we do not have much knowledge about her life, we believe she had decided to devote her life completely to God and give her possessions to the poor.  Her feast day is particularly important in Norway and Sweden, where the oldest girl in the house dons a crown of candles and serves saffron buns  to her family early on this particular morning. For more information click here. For a recipe for St. Lucy’s Buns or Lussekatter, click here.

Photos by Tydence and Henrik Kettunen. Thanks!

Squeaky Clean

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap… — Malachi 3:2

Read:  Malachi 3:1-4

Ponder:

“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” ― Martin Luther

Reflect:

I don’t know about you, but I like things squeaky clean. Unfortunately, with a busy life, children, and pets, my home is rarely squeaky clean. I’d like to think my spiritual life would past the proverbial “white glove” test, but I know that is not the case. I will never be perfect in this life, and I can never be “good enough” for God. Without grace and mercy I am nothing. Thankfully, by grace I am a work in progress. I am being scrubbed clean–purified and sanctified–in the discipleship process. Like Martin Luther wisely said, we grow, are healed, and are becoming what God intends for us to be.

The process is not always easy or smooth. Pain is often part of growth. We may find ourselves burned, stripped bare of all pretense and illusion, of everything to which we aspire or think we ought to be. God has a way of scrubbing us right down to our bare humanity, sanding our rough edges and cleaning away old coats of unnecessary fluff and nonsense.

When the going gets tough, just remember that you are a work in process–a work dearly loved by your Creator. You are precious. You have purpose (even if you haven’t discovered it yet). And you have been bought with a great price. Squeaky clean? Nah. Getting there? You betcha!

Thanks-Living:

Clean something. It can be dishes, clothes, your kitchen, the floors, the bathroom. Find something to clean and do it mindfully. Watch as the grime and dirt wash away. Use natural substances if possible like lemon, mineral oil, salt, vinegar, and baking soda. Take delight in making something sparkling and fresh. Imagine…this must be at least a tiny bit akin to how God feels as we are being made new and being purified.

Photo by internetsense. Thanks!

New Clothes

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting; for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.  — Baruch 5:1-3

Read: Baruch 5:1-9

Ponder:

“Even today, Christians give God glory primarily through acts of justice and mercy. Witness is only commentary on these acts. In the season of waiting, let us not forget the less fortunate. Let us act with justice and mercy.” — Larry Broding

Reflect:

But I’m just one person! What can I possibly do? But we’re such a small congregation. We have no resources. Our members are aging. We’re just trying to keep the lights on. What can we do? Our denomination is losing members hand over foot. Budgets are shrinking. What kind of difference can we make when we can’t even agree on simple things?

Ever heard anything like this? So has God. In the words from the prophetic writings of Baruch, a disciples of Jeremiah and the traditional author of the deutero-canonical book that bears his name, we learn that God will restore the beleaguered nation of Israel from captivity to righteousness.

This reading ends the book with hope and promise. If Israel will return to the LORD, to right worship, to acts of mercy and justice that give glory to God, then Israel will remain in right relationship to the LORD.

The next time you feel yourself weighed down with woe and smothered by sorrow, when your worshiping community feels ill-equipped and small in the face of the world’s needs, remember this reading. Put on the fresh clothes of God’s righteousness and live into a new reality that is the reign of God. Justice and mercy are lived out in small acts as well as large ones. There is work for all of us to do, and a place for all God’s children at the table. No one is too small, too insignificant, too young, too old, too rich, too poor, or too anything to help usher in the reign of God. Remember that God chose a seemingly insignificant lowly teenager to bear Christ into the world. Surely God can use us, too!

Thanks-Living:

What one small act of mercy or justice can you do this very day? How can you help spread the good news of the coming of Jesus in your own little corner of the world? It could be as small as a smile and a hug or as grand as buying a goat or a water buffalo for a family half way round the world that you will never meet. It might be writing a letter to your elected official or praying for world peace. Small acts add up!

Blessings on your Sabbath day.

Photos by Pharma Mike and juditK. Thanks!

 

Alert & On Guard

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly….Be alert at all times. — Luke 21:34, 36a

Read: Luke 21:25-36 (Yes, this is the same reading as yesterday, but it bears re-reading.)

Ponder:

“Sometimes it seems as though we spend our lives waiting. Daydreaming about an upcoming vacation, worrying over a medical test, preparing for the birth of grandchild-our days are filled with anticipation and anxiety over what the future holds. As Christians, we too spend our lives waiting. But we are waiting for something much bigger than a trip, bigger even than retirement or a wedding: We are waiting for the return of Jesus in glory. Advent heightens this sense of waiting, because it marks not only our anticipation of Jesus’ final coming, but also our remembrance of his arrival into our world more than 2,000 years ago.”  — Anonymous

Reflect:

What lies heavy on your mind and heart today? What worries are you harboring and nurturing? What needs to be let go so that God can infuse your very being with expectation, hope, and joy?

If you find yourself hurrying through this season with too much to do and not enough hours in the day, do something quite counter-intuitive: sit still and do nothing. Simply be. The to-do list will still be there, and maybe some of it will turn out to not be worth doing anyway. Maybe some of it doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Be alert. Be ready. Watch for those “God-sightings” in your home, during your worship and time with friends, and even waiting in the check-out lane at the grocery. An encounter with the Divine might be just around the corner or down the next aisle. Look for God in the ordinary and extraordinary. Trust me…God is already there.

Thanks-living:

Consider calling up a friend to go for coffee or tea. Make a date with your spouse, partner, or significant other. Make special time to spend  one-on-one with your child or children. Write your parents a letter. Attend an extra worship service or Advent event in your community of faith. Find one thing to do that requires your complete presence and attention. Put those to-do lists aside and experience some joy and anticipation.

What I Did:

Last night my spouse and I were invited to have dinner with friends. Sure there is more work to be done in this season than we have hours for, but we gladly accepted their invitation, and what fun we had! Not only did Liz prepare an amazing meal, but we had conversation, laughter, and a rousing game of “Words with Friends” that we’ll savor for days to come. Thank you, Liz and Tom, for giving us the invitation and permission to simply “be” for an evening and enjoy the gift of friends and fun. Truly the love, grace, and spirit of our Lord was with us all.

Photos by paralog and Minette Layne. Thanks!

Signs

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  — Luke 21:25-26

Read: Luke 21:25-36

Ponder:

“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” — Bill McKibben

Reflect:

A quick glance at global news headlines can be a terrifying thing. Headlines announce war, murder, destruction, natural disaster, hunger, poverty, and abuses of all kinds in a macabre parade of words and images. It’s enough to put one into flight mode–at least metaphorically.

One way some folks cope with this onslaught of devastation is to ignore it by running to other activities, passions, and pleasures. The problems seem so big, so bad, and so complicated that it’s easier to ignore them. Thank about it: after the horror of 9/11 we were encouraged to shop, to get on with life as usual and keep the economic machine running smoothly.

Luke’s gospel tells us something completely different. Instead of fleeing, falling, and fearing, we are to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21:28b). We are to look and listen for the footsteps of God’s redemption in our world.

The season of Advent provides the space and opportunity to slow down, give our “running shoes” a rest, and listen in prayer, worship, and daily life for the signs of divine action in the world. The signs are there. They are hopeful. And  they are very, very real! Dear friends, look for these signs of real life abundant and overflowing with mercy, love, and grace. Be still and encounter God.

Thanks-living:

Take a “news fast” today. Avoid encountering news on television, radio, and website. Instead, play some music that inspires you. Take a walk outside if weather permits. Bake some bread or sweets and fill your home with the fragrance of love’s creative action. Share your baked goods with family and friends. Choose an inspiring film to watch–or a comedy if you’re in need of a laugh. Most importantly, light a candle and pray for the wisdom to work for peace and watch for God-signs in the world. Blessings on your day.

Like Dave Brubeck? Remember him this week by listening to “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Check out David Anderson’s article about Brubeck, who died December 5 at the age of 92, here.

Photo by kt Ann. Thanks!

The Generous Saint-aclaus

From the book Tales Told in Holland–a rather odd photo indeed.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  James 1:17

Read: 2 Corinthians 9:6-9

Ponder:

“Once again St. Nicholas Day

Has even come to our hideaway;

It won’t be quite as fun, I fear,

As the happy day we had last year.

Then we were hopeful, no reason to doubt

That optimism would win the bout,

And by the time this year came round,

We’d all be free, and safe and sound.

Still, let’s not forget it’s St. Nicholas Day,

Though we’ve nothing left to give away.

We’ll have to find something else to do:

So everyone please look in their shoe!”

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

Reflect

Today many Christians will commemorate the life and faithful witness of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.  We don’t know a whole lot about Nicholas, although many wonderful legends and stories exist. He lived and served during the fourth century in what is now Turkey, and he is believed to have died around 342 CE.

Stories told about Nicholas emphasize his love of God, his love for neighbor, and his particular compassion for the poor and marginalized. My favorite legend involves three young women whose father was about to sell them into slavery (think human trafficking) because there was no money for dowries. The good bishop reportedly placed a bag of gold in one of each girl’s stockings that were hung out to dry, thus enabling them to marry rather than face a life of shame and ignominy.

Legends about the life of St. Nicholas give us our legend of Santa Claus, although the modern North American Santa Claus is a creation of Clement Clark Moore, who in the early 1800s wrote the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore’s  creation of Santa Claus was an attempt to transform the rowdy, drunken holiday traditions into a more family-oriented, calm, and safe holiday. His good intentions, however, played right into the hands of those seeking to market Christmas, and so gift-giving morphed like atomic fallout into an overspent, overindulged, and harried experience.

Recapturing the story of St. Nicholas is one way to turn the Advent and Christmas focus back to giving in a good way–not giving to excess or beyond one’s means but rather giving to meet needs. Instead of giving out of guilt or duty, St. Nicholas’ witness encourages us to give out of pure love in response to the unmerited love and grace of Christ.

No, I’m really not trying to spoil Christmas for the tots or undo a complicated system of supply and demand that will unmantle the very underpinnings of capitalism and the economic system. I’m simply hoping to provide a way for us to reclaim the expectation, preparation, and joy of the Advent season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if no family had to go into debt in order to “do Christmas” the right way? Wouldn’t it be lovely if folks could slide into the pews on Christmas Eve and sing “Silent Night” with a sense of wonder and delight rather than exhaustion and anxious hope about whether enough has been prepared and spent?

Christmas presents we purchase come and go or break and end up in some landfill. Gifts of heart and hand last much longer. But the gift of God incarnate for which we wait once again is the one true gift that matters, the one that will never be the wrong size or color and will never need returning.

Thanks-Living

Spend some time today recovering the legends and stories of this good Christian man, whose life witness gives us a model for generosity and care of the poor and marginalized. For more information, check out Bill McKibben’s delightful little book Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas, Adam English’s new book The Saint who Would be Santa Claus, and/or Stephen Nissenbaum”s The Battle for Christmas. You can also learn a lot by visiting the St. Nicholas Center website. Give thanks for Nicholas’ generous spirit and find one way to be secretly generous with someone today.

Consider making St. Nicholas ornaments or cookies. A pattern/tutorial for the ornament, designed by Mollie Johanson/Wild Olive, may be found here. Recipes for cookies may be found here or at the St. Nicholas Center website. Blessings on your day!

Photos by dierken and oddharmonic. Thanks!

Thanks Enough

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 1 Thessalonians 3:9

Read: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Ponder:

“For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.” — William Blake

Reflect:

Committing to a life thanks-living means expressing thanks in all conditions and at all times. The apostle Paul knew a thing or two about being thankful in any situation. Even while imprisoned in Rome with an uncertain future, Paul still found time to give thanks for the communities he had helped to mentor on his missionary journeys.

The baser side of our human nature encourages us to think of what we do not have. Whatever is bad, sad, or ugly in our lives floats to the surface like toxic flotsam. It clouds the waters of our perception and prevents us from seeing all the blessings of God.

Today try to see the world through Paul’s eyes. If that doesn’t work for you, read some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work.  I recommend The Cost of Discipleship for starters. Click here to read excerpts. To read an inspiring story about finding the best in the worst of situations, click here to read the story of two men who forged a friendship from the ashes of anger and death. If your thoughts turn to the negative, take a deep breath and find something to praise or something for which to be thankful. Remember that you are where you are and who you thanks to the work, love, and sacrifice of many others, including Jesus who gives you life forever.

Thanks-Living:

Today make a list of people and things for which you are thankful. Give thanks to God for your many blessings. Call or write one person on your list to let them know that you prayed for them and give joyful thanks for them. Take delight in the life you have this day.