I can only imagine what it was like the night of the birth. Angels were working in the fields. They were doing what they had done for years. Many were going about the business of their ancestors. This was supposed to be a routine evening doing a routine job.
As the shepherds settled into their mundane tasks, they were visited by a celestial band of angels. Something happened. The colors, the lights, the music. It all was magnificent. Words could never describe it. The proclamation which came from above to those below all told of the one who was promised to the world. God in the flesh was present. We are told that the shepherds followed the angels’ instructions and visited the Holy family.
This revelation still occurs in the world today. Somehow, we encounter God and are invited into a relationship which includes beauty and awe. We are led to find that which is sacred and divine. Once we have this encounter with God, nothing is ever the same.
May this Christmas lead you to that which calls you to the sacred. May your manger experience be one that transforms you and redeems you. Experience the form of God within us and through us. Your life will never be the same.
I don’t know what it was about last night, but I had a profound awareness of God’s presence as my family decorated our Christmas tree. As my wife placed hangers on the ornaments, she pointed out the various people and places that had so generously given us these little gifts of memories. I hung a big figure skate on the tree from my friend Nora thanking me for the gift of friendship. Nora, if you read this, know that I smiled as I placed that skate up on the tree. I considered your friendship a true blessing. We hung the wonderfully decorated ornaments up from churches past. Wonderful jewels of the memories of service.
We moved our way through the storage boxes as we hung ornaments dating back to the first Christmas that my wife and I celebrated as a married couple. Each of our children hung their first ornaments from the respective year of their own births. Of course, the 14 year old hung his near the top and the 4 year old hung his near the bottom. Seeing my boys hang their own proclamations of their lives made me appreciate how we honor the rituals specially created in our family.
I began to appreciate the many years that I have been hanging ornaments on trees dating back to my own childhood. I gave thanks for the times that I hung an item which sparked a message that God’s hope and spirit are alive and well in my home. Family traditions, at their best, invite us to bring the past into the present. Each year we put up a tree, we touch those who have gone before us. We somehow connect to the many Christmases of yesterday.
We naturally celebrate a season of Advent. It is our hope to move forward by looking back on the gifts which we have received in years gone by. This is where we gather strength in our faith. We know that we can move on because we have before. We press on with the promise of what is to come.
I was reminded of my calling to ministry this week. The husband of one of my parishioners died this past week and my attention was drawn to helping her family come to terms with such a great loss. Most of my days were filled with how I might be of service to the extended members of the body of Christ. In the middle of the chaos of death, I found that there is a sense of peace that passes all that I could ever hope to understand.
There is an acute awareness of life. I refer to family that comes together and shrouds one another in tears and in love. While many of the members of this group were very different than each other, there was one underlying sentiment to which all seemed to agree. The patriarch of the family will be greatly missed. And the age old question of “What does life look like without him?” became the focal point of the week.
I was very appreciative for the church family which rallied around to deliver food to nourish both the body and the spirit. There is a strong statement about our community of faith as we hold each other up and face the ultimate situations which bring us to our knees. We do these things together.
I am grateful for my church which allows me to be a part of the holiest of moments in life. This is one of the many reasons I am compelled to be a pastor. It is to testify to the awareness that God is present in life and in death. In our context we believe that there is hope in a life after death.
I share spaces with people which are sacred. This is my calling. This is my honor and joy.
With all the changes in the life of my family, the idea of beginnings seems to be a recurring theme. I think back to the good ole days at Almeda Baptist Church and the excitement of discovering faith for the first time as alive and vital. I remember the Sunday School classes and wonder how those poor saints put up with me and those like me. I give thanks for those sacred memories and actually trace the beginnings of my calling to ordained ministry as starting in that little church.
I am reliving the feeling of falling in love with music through the talents of my fourteen year old son. His abilities fascinate me and I remember the incredible voices of those who attended the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I think of choir trips and classical music which spoke into places within my spirit that I never knew existed. Through studying the classics, I discovered God in a more profound way. I remember being introduced to Stravinsky and my first reaction was to run in horror. I wondered how anyone could call the endless disjointed flowing of Latin syllables music.
My skepticism gave way to complete awe. I remember standing on the stage as the choir sang the last movement. The light shined on the stage in a way that brought the throne of God directly to that space. In the matter of three months of working on the “Symphony of Psalms,” I discovered that classical music could not only move me emotionally, but touch that part of me that begged for order and structure.
Today I find myself very grateful for beginnings. I celebrate the moments in which I contribute to the process of creation. I stand at the threshold of chaos and with a breath that is given by the Spirit, create something new and fresh. I design something that had never existed before. Sometimes it is from scratch (ex nihlio), while sometimes it is an open window. Whatever it is, I step into a new space and nothing else will ever be the same.
It has been my experience that there are times in ministry in which I am called on to provide leadership in areas that I have no clue as to how to proceed. Example, I was not trained in seminary how to remove bats from the church. Isn’t that someone else’s job? As the pastor, it is something which I inherited.
Okay, enough with the bat story. What I am trying to say is that our lives reflect the incredible call which God places on our lives. That call involves moving out of our comfort zone and moving into a place which challenges us to listen, learn, and follow. Our journeys are individual and sacred unto us. No one walks in exactly our steps. Our common link is that the one who created us invites us to move along our path with the promise that we will not be alone on our journey.
My journey has been on my mind throughout the challenges and joys of this week. My son auditioned for the All-State Choir. We are anxiously awaiting his results. His story touches me profoundly. As a fellow musician, he is experiencing the joys and concerns of being freshly and newly in love with music. He is passionate and all-consuming with his music making.
I am not sure that this desire will last through the year much less the rest of his life, but I do know I see that excitement about music and I remember myself. There may have been many people who were more talented than me, but there are very few who were more passionate than me when it came to making music.
My wife and I are finding opportunities for my son to explore that part of himself which is compelled to make music. We travel to Albuquerque (a two hour drive from our house) on a weekly basis to provide him with the opportunity to be a part of the Albuquerque Boys’ Choir. He is accepted and celebrated in this venue.
The biggest life lesson that I think I can teach my child is that we are to model our lives as God loves us. I am talking about a radical transformative journey which sets out to take our wounded hearts and lead us to our heart’s delight. I want my child to see in me someone who was not afraid to live into the overwhelming call that God placed on my life. So what if it changes from music to something else, the groundwork by which he seeks out artistic expression may spill over into any part of his life.
And as for the bats in the church, they are gone. I called the chair of the Trustees and we waited until it was appropriate to close up the spaces in the roof in which the bats were flying into the building. One detour down, many more to go. I still claim the beauty of being on the path. That path that guides me and sustains me through the next detour. That path that fills me with passion and purpose to continue forward. My son’s love of music reminded me of my own journey this week.
**For the record, my son made the New Mexico All-State Treble Choir
This week I started a Bible study at my church. I am teaching Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. As part of the introduction to the letter I discussed the significance of the document. The main question raised was “What was at stake in the theological landscape of the Christian movement?”
As always, I am amazed at the conversation that begins to surface. Paul’s reaction to the concept of grace and the indoctrination of new believers into the Jesus movement addressed a major crisis confronting the young religious order. The issue was how to validate both Jewish and Gentile experiences of faith in the risen Christ.
While my initial question may at first appear to have a simple solution, through a first century lens it was a very different story. How were these two radically different worlds, Jewish believers and Gentile believers, brought together? Eventually, Paul’s answer was to focus on the most important thing. That is the faith as demonstrated in Jesus. Faith can overcome difference.
This is still a relevant question in the religious landscape of today. There are so many faiths which make the claim of absolute truth that the mysteries of God are put in a box. God, according to some, must be completely figured out. Where is the faith in the kind of religious model which claims absolute truth?
Someone once told me that faith occurs in one of two ways. In both scenarios, one comes to the edge of a cliff. At the edge of the cliff God will either build a bridge to the other side, or give us wings to fly. It is important to note that neither the bridge nor the wings are defined. They are simply provided at the right time to get to the right place.
It is my belief, and I know at this point I have veered far from any image given in the Bible, that each bridge and each wing that is created as faith in action is characteristically special to each person and each event. Each experience is real unto itself. Who am I to say that one journey of faith is the same as the other? That is far more than has been revealed about the God of my understanding.
And how does Paul fit into this image of faith? Paul concluded that the Gentile believers need not be concerned about the law. Why would the law matter to someone who never lived under the law? His answer was to embrace Jesus. In this faith there is change, there is healing, there is new life. My hope for today is that we, as the body of Christ, may make room for a faith which is more concerned with the love of God than we are about claiming to have all of the answers. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6 NRSV).
This week has gone nothing like I had planned. I was supposed to be at a retreat where I could catch a quick breath of fresh air and get to know some colleagues. Through a series of unfortunate events, I had to leave the retreat early to get back home. I must say that I was very disappointed and angry for not having the time to simply be still.
Well, while I was licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself, I got a call from my 14 year old. My first reaction was one of anger. Why was he using his cell phone during school hours? My anger gave way to concern as he asked me to bring the medical supplies needed to treat a bleed.
While driving to the school, a million questions began to pass through my mind. What happened? Did he hit his head? My son has severe hemophilia, this could be life threatening. My sense of self-pity gave way to fear and concern. I found out that he was physically attacked at school and pushed off of a railing that was approximately 5 or 6 feet off the ground. Luckily, there was a video camera that caught the entire event on film.
This was a hate crime. The boys who did this had been teasing my son for many days before this event. They called him names that were demeaning and insulting. My son, who says he is not gay, was called names that I will not even write here. They are too cruel and too obscene. All of the names that these two “gentlemen” called my son reflected a gross prejudice against those people who are labeled as different. In this case, the insults were slurs centered around sexuality.
In light of recent national events and this particular event that affected the life of my own family, I come to one question about my own faith. How do I seriously share radical hospitality when I create lists of those who are in the loop and those who should be excluded? I am called to be a minister to all people. We must pick up the gauntlet of being a welcoming and affirming church so that we can stand up against the bullies of this world.
Christ came to set us all free, not to create a list of those who are in and those who are out. Until we truly open our doors and welcome all of Christ’s children, we cannot successfully win the battle against those who threaten and mistreat others. I ask you to stand with me and be far-reaching in your efforts to bring the light of Christ into a world that needs hope and not judgment.
As I pray about this situation, I also am reminded that those who mistreated my son also need prayers. I hope that these two young men reevaluate their own belief systems and learn from this incident. I pray for the graciousness and mercy of God to pour into the lives of our children. I also lift up gratitude for how the leadership of the school (Yes, I mean the public school) handled this situation.
It is hard to believe that we are coming up to the first Sunday in October. Where has the year gone? As typical of just about every first Sunday of the month, our church celebrates Communion. As part of my sermon series “Read Through the Bible in a Year” I have chosen to step away from the lectionary and focus on major themes throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This week’s focus is on the preparation for the Passover or Seder Meal as found in Luke 22:7-13.
“Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover meal for us that we may eat it.’ They asked him, ‘Where do you want us to make preparations for it?’ ‘Listen,’ he said to them, ‘when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters and say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks you, ‘Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ ” He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there.’ So they went and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal” (Luke 22:7-13 NRSV).
The message that I hear from this passage is one that reminds me to be purposeful in my acts of worship and reverence. Jesus models this sense of intentional preparation by sending Peter and John ahead to prepare the important meal of Passover. There is no half-hazardness about this feast. Instructions are specific and direct.
Our offering to God should include everything that we have to give. Is it really our complete selves when all we offer are left overs? We are asked to bring to the table our completeness. As we come to the table we intentionally leave behind the idea that God could never embrace us or love us in a radical and transforming way. In offering all of ourselves we do include our imperfections. The blood that is offered at the table redeems those parts of us which need to be restored to wholeness.
As we prepare and celebrate the sacrament of Communion in our churches let us remember to be fully present. We are asked to give all of who and what we are to God. We are reminded of the sacrifices of both God and humanity in the sacrament of Communion. We come to the table with an awareness that something empowering and impossible is being made known. Our God is reminding us that the Divine is present among us, through us, and yes, even in spite of us.
For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the LORD,
because they have called you an outcast: ‘It is Zion; no one cares for her!’ (NRSV Jer. 30:17)
I recently was doing some volunteer work at my son’s high school. Through a strange turn of events, I was told that I was no longer invited to volunteer my services at the school. I was told through an e-mail and without a meeting (which would have cleared up many of the details that surrounded this comedy of errors). In the process I discovered that someone who I thought was a friend was simply saving himself and did not help defend me. I was very shocked and deeply disappointed that I would not be able to provide opportunities that should be minimal standards of music education in the classroom.
As I came off the event fresh and hurting, I ran across this verse in Jeremiah. I am not at the point of forgiveness. I am not sure how long it will take, but I do know that this verse spoke into my wound. It reminds me that God will be there to refresh me and will comfort me.
My challenge is not to be mired down in anger. I can easily be taken away with the feeling that I was wronged. I mean, don’t I deserve the satisfaction of seeking revenge? While my human weakness screams out yes my heavenly sense reminds me that I need to pray for the situation and rediscover God’s grace alive in the world. That world includes my heart as well as those who hurt me.
I am not ready for that last part. It is my faith which gives me hope that I will move past the anger, into the healing of God, and eventually forgive those who wronged me. I give thanks today that this is a process by which only Divine intervention speaks to me in tenderness gently pushing me to the next level.
“Let the moment go, but don’t forget it for a moment though. Just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’ when your back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I understand and it’s time to leave the woods” (Lapine and Sondheim, Into the Woods).
This phrase is a favorite of mine for many reasons. First of all, it is from one of my very favorite shows Into the Woods. Second, it is the first show that I saw on Broadway. Third, I was very fortunate to see the production with Vanessa Williams as the Witch along with an extremely talented cast.
I come to the subject of regrets or roads not taken. I am very good at remembering what could have been and forgetting that my choices led me to this moment. I am speaking of the here and now. What about the road that I did choose? Isn’t that road just as special?
I think the things that I truly regret are those choices that I made out of fear and not out of a sense of honor to myself. I regret those times that I chose a path, not because it was the one I wanted, but the one I settled for due to shame or a lack of courage.
My life, in this moment, is about embracing those steps which led me to the path to which I have been called. I can honestly say that I live with no regrets, because I celebrate my choices. Now don’t misunderstand me. I have regrets in the past, but none in the present.
The most wonderful part of life is to embrace the “moments” in life for what they are. They are special. My time, even though it was three years, in seminary was a “moment” in my life. I knew that I had to move forward with a hope that the future would lead to more “moments.” I am grateful that I have chosen this particular journey in which I have a blessed life.