Limping Into Advent (guest post)

Limping Into Advent (guest post)

(Today’s post comes by way of Alicia Davis-Porterfield, writing in the Ministry and Motherhood Blog. I gladly share this with her permission.)

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned . . . Isaiah 9:2

It was dark, in those days. Very dark. Rome ruled Israel, the latest in a long line of conquerors. David’s line seemed all dried up after a succession of useless kings who led a great people to ruin. Caesar had ordered a new census with an eye toward his coffers.

The more people he could account for, the more taxes he could raise; the more taxes he could raise, the more people he could conquer. And so on and so on.

There was no one to challenge him in those days, no one who could shake the grip of the Roman Empire. Israel was a conquered people doing the will of a Caesar they neither chose nor revered nor trusted.

And so it was that Joseph put Mary on that donkey to take the long trip to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. They were not going for a great family reunion, tables laden with favorite foods and local delicacies. They were not headed home for a religious celebration with its own time honored traditions and deep roots in their faith.

They were doing the bidding of Caesar, whose command had come at just the wrong time for their lives, just when Mary’s pregnancy was coming to an end. When she should have been home in Nazareth surrounded by relatives and neighbors who could help her through the trial of labor, she was far from home, alone with only Joseph to attend her.

There was nothing about this story that seemed right, nothing that felt warm and homey and comforting. Mary got pregnant too early and under circumstances no one could believe. Joseph, confused and angry, was ready to quietly un-engage her, until an angel intervened.

And if that wasn’t enough, Caesar interrupted the whole thing with his call for a census, requiring a trip to Bethlehem, a place far from the home and family they knew. They would travel all that way, endangering themselves and the baby, so their conquerors could collect more tax money. This is not a happy story. Not yet.

If you are hurting or angry or confused this Advent season, you are in good company, at least according to the actual Biblical story. If you are lonely or grieving this Advent season, your story is their story, a people who had been conquered for centuries, wondering if God had forgotten them. If you can’t be full of good cheer and cringe at the thought of crowded malls and gift extravaganzas and to-do lists longer than your arm, you are not being a Scrooge or a Grinch.

In fact, you may know better than most the real struggle in this story we know almost too well. Perhaps those with troubled hearts might just have the ears to hear the depth of pain and longing the “holly jolly” approach has written right out of the story. This is the quiet story, not the one of hustle and bustle and ringing cash registers.

This is the story that makes room for pregnant teenagers and confused husbands and people who wonder what God is up to—or even sometimes, if God is up to anything, but who go anyway. This is the true story, according to scripture, the story that has almost been drowned out by demands for good cheer and forced festivities that actually have little to do with the nativity.

The birth of Christ was as far from a Hallmark Christmas special as it possibly could be. Don’t be snowed by the hype. If you are hurting in any way, if your heart is troubled, if you are limping instead of leaping, this is your story.

Advent is a time to prepare for the light coming into the darkness, which means that there is indeed darkness in the story. It does not have the last word, praise be to God. But the darkness is there, the struggle, the loss, the grief, the disappointment and anger–no matter how hard the marketers push to convince us otherwise.

If you are searching for that light, longing for it amidst the darkness, limping into Advent, you are not alone. The Bible tells us so.

 

Alicia Davis Porterfield serves, mothers, and writes in Wilmington, NC. After the recent death of her adored and adoring father, she is definitely limping into Advent.

 

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The table will be wide

The Table Will Be Wide

a sermon by Peggy Haymes
Isaiah 40:25-31
I John 4:7-12

It’s a strange sort of day.
All around us trees are beginning to look like collection of paintbrushes,
their tips dipped in yellow and burgundy.
The thermometer
has dropped to temperatures
more appropriate for Pumpkin Spice Latte season.

For the folks who dread winter
it feels like a harbinger of doom.
but I suspect that the most seasonally challenged of us
still cannot help to delight
in a day like we had yesterday.

Bright. Shiny. Crisp.

It’s a strange sort of time
because when you read a newspaper that you hold in your hands
or watch the news
or catch up online,
the world looks considerably less shiny.

Ebola once sounded exotic,
the stuff of an adventure novel.
Now it feels scary
and Africa feels a bit too close.
I saw a slide show online this week
of pictures from Liberia.
I tried to fathom what it was like for the people in those pictures
to be stretched out on the hard earth,
so terribly sick,
perhaps sick unto death,
with friends and family afraid to come near.
What is a like to try to work there,
knowing that even with best precautions,
you may be next.
What is it like to live there,
watching your family and your village and your town
decimated before your eyes?
What is it like
to watch your country being destroyed
not by war but by illness?

The world looks less shiny
and verily, seems filled
with bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.
In Hong Kong umbrellas are weapons of choice
as protestors try to protect themselves
while saving their futures.

In Syria,
captive are beheaded.
Does anyone really know what’s going on in
Israel and Gaza,
in Egypt,
in Afghanistan?

Lord, have mercy.

It’s not just out there, you know.
Parents search for children
who cannot be found,
and parents sit vigil by the besides of children
praying for cures to be found.
Terrible things are done to the vulnerable..
a child, a wife, a girlfriend,
even an animal.
Terrible things are done
to this creation that is our home
and our stewardship.

Lord, have mercy.

Today is World Communion Sunday.

World Communion Sunday was begun as a way
for the multicultural and multi-hued
body of Christ to remember that we are indeed one.
Whether our label is Baptist or Episcopal or Methodist or Presbyterian or Catholic
or some other brand,
whether we are in a first world country
or a third
or somewhere in-between,
we are one as the body of Christ.

But as I thought about this service
and as I thought about the news
and as I thought about the stories I hear every day,
it seemed to me that the whole world
felt a bit broken.
Maybe we gather at this table not as a sign of our unity
but as a sign of our brokenness.
Because, this table,
it knows something about broken things.

We have two texts for today.
The first comes from the book of Isaiah (40:25-31)

The audience of the prophet
knew something about broken worlds.
They lived in one.

Despite the reassurances of the TV preachers with good hair
that everything was going to be just fine,
their country was defeated by the Babylonians.
Overrun, really.
The Temple, God’s house, was destroyed
and many of them were taken away from their own homes
into exile.
Many of them would never get home again.
They feel like God has abandoned them.

To a dispirited and dejected people,
Isaiah thunders out words of challenges and hope.
God is not defeated
and God hasn’t given up.

Even when the most aerobically conditioned among us
fall by the wayside,
God’s people keep going.
Not just shuffling along.
But flying.

God gives power to the faint.
To the weak God gives strength.
To those who wait upon God,
to those who don’t give up,
to those who keep showing up,
God won’t abandon them.
God will renew them.
God will lift them up.

Now our second text may not seem like
it has much in common with the first.
The writer, whom we call John,
is writing to this new Christian community.
Jesus hasn’t yet returned
so they have to figure out
how to live with each other
in the meantime.

My beloved friends, this is how you know
You’re one of God’s people:
you love.

The apple cannot fall far from the tree.
God is love,
and so should we love.

God showed us how far love can go.
Out of the love the infinite,
all powerful God
became a helpless baby
who had to be fed
and carried from one place to the next
and I daresay, have his diapers changed.

Out of love,
this baby grew up to be a man
who taught and healed and loved.
A man who chose to share in the experiences that we share,
to love his friends,
to be hurt by them and even betrayed by them,
to be tired and to be hungry,
to be hurt and humiliated,
to be shamed and to be bruised,
to be beaten up.
Finally, to die.

God showed us
that love knows no boundaries
and God’s love knows no limits.

Do you know of Nadia Bolz-Weber?
She’s the minister
who is known for her use of what many feel is not not quite appropriate for the sanctuary languageand collection of tattoos,     including a large Mary Magdalene on her forearm.

But she is also known for reminding us that grace isn’t just for those of us
who clean up real good
or who never got that dirty to begin with.

She writes,
“God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new… It happens to all of us. God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. and God keeps loving us back to life over and over.” ( Nadi Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, p. 174)

We gather at this table
because it’s a table that knows about brokenness.
Jesus says it right out loud:
this is my body, broken for you.

But the broken isn’t the end of the story.
This table is set with love.

We gather at this table
because our host Jesus meets us here,
reminding us that God loves this whole
shiny, hurting, confused, brilliant world.

We gather at this table
because this is food for the weary.
This is strength for the struggling.
This is balm for the sad.
This is celebration for the joyful.
This is blessing and commission for the strong…
and the weak,
for the successful
and the failures.
In other words,
we gather at this table
because there is room here for all of us.
there is love enough here
for you
and for me
and for this whole world.

We gather at this table
knowing that broken isn’t the last word.

It is strange sort of days but God knows,
God knows,
they are days held in the heart of God.
As are we.
As I was preparing for this service I came across this poem.
It is a blessing for World Communion Sunday,
and it is our blessing.

And the Table Will Be Wide

A Blessing for World Communion Sunday

And the table


will be wide.


And the welcome


will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide


to gather us in.

And our hearts


will open wide


to receive.

And we will come
 as children who trust


there is enough.

And we will come


unhindered and free


And our aching


will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow


will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands


to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn


toward each other

without fear.


And we will give up

our appetite


for despair.

And we will taste


and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.


And we will become drink


for those who thirst.


And the blessed

will become the blessing.


And everywhere

will be the feast.
– Jan Richardson

© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

Amen.

Lindley Park Church, Greensboro, NC 210/5/2014

I went running

I had a bit of a break today at lunchtime so I grabbed the dogs and went running. Tuesday’s not a normal running day since I work out at the gym on Tuesdays. But today I needed to run.

Like you, I have been heartsick over the tragedy in Boston. I have all of the feelings that come hand in hand with tragedy like this. But with this one, there’s another layer.

While I know people who’ve run Boston, more than likely I never will. I’m still looking for that elusive first marathon to to hang on my wall. But I’m a runner all the same.

A marathoner on NPR said it well today. “Marathons are about the best of the human spirit. Total strangers cheer you on and give you orange slices and tell you they’re proud of you.” I love to do races because of that spirit and energy. When people tell me, at the end of a training program, “I don’t need to do the race because I’ve already run the distance” I tell them that they’re missing the best part.

Like you, I’m heartsick over this new Boston Massacre. I didn’t quite know what to do with it all so I went running. I ran to honor all of those who were there yesterday. I ran because when we feel a little lost we go back to those places that feel most like home.

I think that’s why Peter announced he was going fishing after the resurrection. Sure, Jesus was alive but it was probably still very confusing, even if less sad. Besides, Peter knew he’d let Jesus down when it mattered most, and that air had not been cleared between them. So he went fishing.

And  I went running. I packed the dogs into the car and took them to one of the places they love best, the trail around Salem Lake. We ran between the perfect combination of water on one side and woods on the other. Deep still waters. Tall, deeply rooted trees with the first vulnerable leaves of spring. Clouds drifting away, leaving behind a warm blue sky.

The dogs grinned and sniffed and grinned some more. They’ll sleep better tonight for having exercised their full dogginess. Perhaps I will too. For there was healing in the running and healing in the creation and healing in hearing all of the stories on the radio, today not stories of mayhem and confusion but stories of compassion and caring.

ImageThe marathon is about the best of the human spirit, she said, and it was so yesterday as well. Restaurants offered whatever they had, free of charge if you didn’t have your wallet on you. A “pet hotel” offered to keep the pets of stranded people. People opened their homes to complete strangers. A man somewhere in the south called his tax preparer and said he wanted to donate $100 of his return to injured marathoners. 

As more stories emerge, our hearts will break again and again. If we are wise, we’ll care for our hearts by doing whatever it is that we do… running, fishing, caring for one another, allowing our broken hearts to open to the world.

We weren’t able to stop the bombs from going off.

But that bomber cannot stop our tide of love.

 

Holy Week junkie

As we walked out from the moving Maundy Thursday service (remembering the night in which Jesus was betrayed and met with his disciples for their last supper) he remarked, “All in all, I like Christmas Eve better.” Well, yeah. He’s not alone in that. It’s one reason attendance at Christmas Eve services is exponentially larger than Maundy Thursday. Joy and birth. Pain, suffering and betrayal. Which do you choose?

I kidded with someone else that  I was a Holy Week junkie. I’ll be at every service I can possibly make. While I love Christmas Eve, I have to have Holy Week.

I missed Palm Sunday because I was away staffing a Life, Loss and Healing workshop. It’s one of those places where healing waters intermix with rivers of pain. In my line of work, I hear a lot of stories. I’ve lived a lot of stories, as most of us do sooner or later. While details may be wildly different, sooner or later most of us find ourselves in a place we’d give our right arm not to be. Standing by a bedside in Hospice. Getting a phone call. Signing the divorce papers. Cleaning out our office. Getting the call from the doctor saying we’ve got the test results back and we need to talk. Or realizing the childhood you thought was normal was nothing of the sort.

Journeying through Holy Week is the only was I can make sense of such stories. Not because we’re given some grand explanation that makes it all make sense. I am convinced that some of it never will. Not on this side and maybe not even on the other.

Here’s the difference. The journey through Holy Week reminds me that we don’t have a God who just pats us on the head and says, “I know how you feel.” We have a God who, in Jesus, became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. He lived the pain of having friends let him down when he needed them the most, friends who betrayed him by their actions and their silence. He lived being bullied, made fun of and spat upon. He knew what it was to be abused, his pain entertainment for those around him. He knew what it was to be the victim of unjust manipulation and schemes. He knew, because flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, he lived it with us. In the end, bleeding, with lips dry and cracking wide open, struggling to find his last breath, struggling to see past the increasing darkness, he looks down on us to say, “My dear friends… my beloved brothers and sisters… I know how you feel.”

No matter the stories I hear and hold and live, I know that in the end I am not alone with them. Because this God made flesh in Jesus carved out a space for them in the pain and the grace and the suffering and the life of his own heart.

And that is cause enough for rejoicing, even a muted Good Friday kind of joy.