Advent and I

As the congregation of my church stood singing carols and decorating the Chrismon tree, I couldn’t help but give thanks for the customs that are part of my United Methodist heritage.  I learned my earliest religious instruction in a tradition that did not observe the church seasons, so I grew up without knowing anything about Advent and Lent.  They were words that I heard for “other” Christians.

When I broke ties with the Southern Baptist church and embraced the United Methodist faith, the one thing that captured my religious imagination was the adherence to the church year.  I celebrated different festivals throughout the different seasons and felt like a new religious language came into being.  My faith experience grew richer and more profound.  The Christmas and Easter seasons became much holier and deeper in joy and meaning as I experienced the awkwardness of Advent and Lent.  What could I add to my life, or give up, that would help me be still and sense the presence of the Lord?

This year, I have asked my congregation to spend this season of Advent in prayer.  I challenge my religious community to be still and let the Spirit of God move within their hearts.  May everyone experience holy transformation. Pray without ceasing, focusing in on the goodness of God.  This call to the Light is our task during the sacredness of the season of preparation.  Be still and know the presence of the One, who delivered you.

And strangely, when I am silent, I do give thanks for my earliest of religious teachers.  Yes, the Southern Baptists.  I give thanks to the mighty men and women of God, who supported me through my very formative years, planting the seed in my heart that God loves even me, a broken and lost child.  God makes it possible so that I can live a life that is meant to be a blessing to others.

My prayer for everyone this Advent season is to embrace light in the middle of darkness. May we all find hope in the midst of despair, and may we celebrate the love and knowledge that our God delivers us from hopelessness.  Praise be to our amazing Giver of Light.  Let us embrace the reality that we are God’s children, and may we live like sons and daughters of the Highest King.

Walking Around the Fire is Not an Option!

I have to admit that I do not like walking through the fire.  I like to tiptoe around it.  Try to avoid it, and wrap it up in a pretty bow.  Maybe if I ignore the fire, I won’t be burned by the flames.  Of course, while I tiptoe around and ignore what is in front of me, the flame continues to grow larger and larger, until there is nothing left, but ash and smoke.  More often than not, where once there was a possibility of creation, now exists only a clump of mess incapable of sustaining any sort of life.

The hardest part in life is walking through the fire.  Only when confronted with the hottest heat can we breathe onto it refreshing water.  Gushing from the spirit at the wellspring of who we are is a chance, an opportunity to find redemption.  We save the earth, our hearts, our souls, from the ravishes of generations of chaos that burns with fury into the very recesses of who we are.  No, we must move through the hardest part to get to the other side.

And the promise of our faith is this, even though we must walk through the fire and deepest darkness, we are not alone.  That is the promise to which we are divinely appointed.  God is with us.  We need only look at the darkest part of our faith, Holy Week, to see the magnificent claim of divine love that redeems us, that calls us by name.  We are children of the Most-High God.  We are made new, having come through the ravages of the past.  With our amazing creator, we have the power to put out the fire.  But we have to walk through it first, always trusting that the one in whom we trust will deliver us and make us whole.

The Beauty of the Sacred

My preaching text this week is John 12:1-8.  It is one of the few passages in the Gospel of John that is mentioned in the other Gospels.  It is the story of Mary washing the feet of Jesus with oil and then drying them with her hair.  There is a certain intimacy and holiness that comes out of this tender moment of reverence.  The power of the story is in the nuance.  No one else but Mary, a female disciple, dares to treat the savior of the world with such compassion and devotion.  The event is holy and set apart.

I am led to Mary’s observance of divine adoration and of her brazen and faithful devotion to her Lord.  Her attention could have carried her away to any other chore in the room, but she chose to fix her eyes on Jesus.  She could have tried to carry on a conversation with her brother, Lazarus.  He seemed to be doing nothing other than lounging around the house.  Or, she could have helped Mary prepare the finishing touches of the meal.  Perhaps she could have calmed Judas down and attended to the needs of the other disciples gathered in her house.  She did none of those things.  Instead, she worshipped at the feet of her master. 

The moments that Mary shared with Jesus are the times I long to experience.  I mean those moments that seem to transcend time.  We wish sacred encounters, much like the one in the Gospel reading, would never end.  There is a connection with God, an enlightenment beyond our understanding, and a transformation that allows us to glimpse all that we are created to be.  We sit at the feet of our Savior, and are content with just being in His holy presence.

We are called to embrace these unexpected moments of faith, drowning out the naysayers who want to do nothing but diminish our time.  But if we are faithful, God will indeed reveal himself to us.  He will speak.  Maybe not in the way we ever would expect divine words to come to us, but He will let His presence be known.

What do we do with such a gift?  With which character do you best identify?  Could it be Lazarus, who does nothing but observes the scene?  How about Judas, who can’t seem to get past his earthly desires?  How about Martha, who once again is at the heart of preparing a meal for a bevy of guests?

For me, I would hope to be like Mary.  The one who fell at the feet of her Lord, and did nothing but worship.  Despite cost.  Despite what others may say.  Her heart and soul were with her Savior.

At the feet of Jesus.  What better place to be?  This is where a disciple is called to serve.  This is where hope and faith converge.

Lent is the Season of…

When I left my childhood faith and embraced the United Methodist tradition, one of the many practices that I never observed until converting was Lent.  I just thought the season was reserved for Catholics, and I didn’t give it a further thought.  I also assumed that Lent was just about giving up things.  Little did I realize that the observance of a “Holy Lent” would become a very important part of my faith practice.

I first approached my first Lenten season with fear and trepidation.  I thought to myself, “This is a dreary and depressing season.  Who in the world wants to observe this time of the year?”  Everything seemed to suggest mourning and sadness.  I was uncomfortable and did not like the tone of the church.

As I grew in my faith, I found that Lent offered me a way to rediscover the very basics of my belief in God.  I learned the importance of remembering my mortality and searching the very depths of my soul for the things that brought me closer to death.  I kept asking myself, “What separates me from my creator?”

Over time, my practice grew to include things that I could add to my day to remind me of God’s love and kindness.  Last year I added a commitment to writing a blog each day, this year I will pray the daily prayers of the Office of the Divine Hours.  Whatever I chose, I hope to increase my awareness of the presence of the Holy One, and to once again offer myself to His service.  I pray that I may grow in the love and knowledge of Christ, and develop something far beyond a faith practice.  I hope to begin a life commitment.

Praise be to God, who constantly reminds us of His love for us. 

I Look to You

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy” (Ps. 63:5-7 NRSV).

I admit that while I like the cold, I love more sunlight during the day.  There is an excitement to the impending arrival of spring.  We think of rebirth and the hope of the newness that is to come.  I was sharing my feelings about the night time and how much I enjoy the day when someone in a group in which I was a member pointed out something that I missed right in front of my face.  My friend said to me, “Joe, remember that there is beauty in the night.  You must journey through the darkness to experience the gifts that are present.”

Our Lenten journey reminds us that we were a people who came out of darkness.  We looked at the stars to guide our hearts into the perfect light, the love of Christ.  We know what complete darkness feels like.  It is a place of fear and insecurity.  We, who have been transformed, know that our journey towards the brightness of God began with a tiny light to pierce the dark.  We can call the light a candle, a glow, a star or even a hope.  However the light may come when there is no light, we are never the same. 

This leads to the ultimate question that, since God is present in all things, is there really complete darkness?  Does our journey ever take us into a place where there is an absence of God?   The Psalmist states in Psalm 139 that, “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps. 139:11-12).  We are never in complete darkness because God is present in all things.

I struggle with such a bold statement such as the one the Psalmist presents.  I have seen the harm that some people inflict on other people and I am afraid that I am led to more questions than answers.  If God is present in all things, then why is their suffering in this world?  I am encouraged to step even deeper into the heart and determine how in the world such atrocities exist if God is present in all things.

Unfortunately, humanity does not treat the environment (including ourselves and others) very well.  We see on the news everyday what groups of people inflict on other groups.  We don’t have very far to go to see the dehumanization of countless groups in our world beaten and left for dead.  Hunger takes its toll on innocent people.  Cancer and other diseases spread through the lives of those we love and we look at the text written by the psalmist and ask, “Are you kidding me?  Why would God allow this to happen in the lives of those around us?  Not only is our world dark, but it appears that God is not present in the blackness.”

I believe that the claim that is made in Psalm 139 concerning God’s presence is indeed true.  God truly is in all things.  Our responsibility is to share in the divine love and nurture it.  Our darkness is made light when we surrender to the love of the Great Creator.  In our perception of the darkness the Holy One calls us to focus on Him.  As we do, we come to realize that this overwhelming God transforms our hearts and minds and gives us comfort and peace.  What once was a dark place has now become light.

An assuredness of God’s presence is what gives us hope in the middle of the darkness.  When all else fails, there is one small light to break through the darkness of cancer, or the blackness of hunger and abuse.  There is no darkness, for God is in every space and place imaginable.   We embrace the light to guide us back to the incredible light of the Father.  God’s warmth is already here.  Will you recognize it and embrace it, or will you live in darkness and fear?  The choice is yours.

Loincloth, Nakedness, and Shame Oh My!

“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (Gen. 3:7 NRSV).

As I prepare for Lent, I stumbled across Genesis 3:7 and was intrigued at the actions that Adam and Eve took when discovering their nakedness. While I am sure there might be several people who read this post because of some of the words located in the text, I do not believe that the literal interpretation of the story is the most important assumption made.

Before the reality of nakedness, Adam and Eve lived in the presence of God and the creation of God without anything to hide. I am not talking about their physical selves, but a spiritual sense of the word nakedness. Their lives were in complete communion with God. They served the land and guarded the soil. Immediately after their disobedience, there was a change in their perception of self and their relationship to God.

There was a need to be hidden. Perhaps out of sense of shame for disobeying, or the realization that something had changed. Perhaps (and I am definitely reading something into the text that is not there) if they could have gone back they might have chosen a different path. The fruit was not as appealing on the other side as it had been before.

We see the first recorded romance with the other side. That romance that eventually devoured Adam and Eve. The truth is, it is easy to point the finger at the first man and woman, but the apple (so to speak) doesn’t fall too far from the cart. We are seduced into situations or people who eventually hurt us. How many times do we fall into the trap of doing the wrong thing with the right motives? The truth is, when all is said and done, the wrong thing is just that regardless of the motive.

Many of us have been wounded in the past in some way or another. We have learned how to travel in secret and hide from ourselves and God the ruined dreams or shattered relationships of the past. This was the only way that we knew how to survive. God wants more from us. God calls us back from the realms of abuse and calls us into a relationship which leaves no room for secrets due to shame or whatever motivation.

I recently read a blog that made me think of how painful it must have been to wear a loincloth made of fig leaves. It was probably scratchy and hurt. We put these loincloths on over our souls. They hurt and tend to make us uncomfortable. We cannot be free of pain until we are free from those things that we have created to give us the illusion that we are covered. Uncover your soul and allow God to fill you with strength, hope, and love.

We are reminded through the Lenten journey to get back to God and bare all that you are to the one who created you. Our relationship with God does not need to possess anything. We simply bring to God our complete selves. Loincloths are not needed.

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