Dear Xavier, I want to introduce you…

I included this letter that I wrote to my son as my “pastor pondering” in this month’s church newsletter.  I wanted to share it with you as well, my dear readers!

Dear Xavier,

I can’t believe that you are already over 2 months old! Time has really flown by.   I feel like Daddy and I are finally getting the hang of this parenting thing, but we know that things change so quickly, and there will always be more that you will teach us. I want to take a moment to welcome you officially into the world and introduce you to a wonderful place called the church. More importantly, I want to introduce you to God, who loves you unconditionally and without reservation. God loves you so much even though you are too young to be aware of God yet. That’s such an amazing thing about God, isn’t it? And then there’s the church. Church is a place where people who love God get together, sing songs, hear stories about God, and love one another. They also learn lessons about how to love other people, even when it might be hard to love them. We live in such a complicated world where sometimes people are hard to love. But God doesn’t want us to give up on loving them, just as God does not give up on loving each of us.

God shows his love to us through a person named Jesus. The church teaches that God, through Jesus, came to earth as a human being to show us and teach us how to love God and to love each other. Jesus teaches us that the world can be a hard place to live. People can be mean. People can try to tell you that they are better than you. People can hurt you or betray you. But Jesus shows us that we are to be strong in this world even though it can be scary. Jesus shows us that we are to be nice to the people who have a hard time in this world or who are different. Jesus teaches us that all are loved, no matter who they are. Jesus shows us what it means to forgive and to be forgiven when we make mistakes.

When Daddy and I found out that you were going to be coming into the world, we learned a new kind of love. I remember riding in the car with Daddy one day when you were in my tummy, and I told him how strange it was how much I loved you already. This reminded me of how vast and how strange love can be, and it reminded me that God is love and shows us how to love. So I want you to know how much Daddy and I love you, and I want you to know how much God loves you. The church is a place where you can come to learn more about God and to grow in your faith. Daddy and I hope that even though I am a pastor and you will come to church often when you are little, that one day you will make the choice to follow Jesus for yourself and you will choose to make the church community a safe place to call home.  I also pray that you will find the church to be a loving and inviting place where you are welcomed with open arms, no matter who you grow up to become. We hope that the promises and celebrations of God’s love that will be made at your baptism in a few months will follow you throughout your life, and that you will know the kind of love that God shows to us.

Welcome to our world, little Xavier. While it can be big, scary, and unkind, it is also a beautiful, wondrous, and loving place. We will do our best to show you the beauty and sacredness of life and love, and to share the story of God with you. You are now part of the story. How awesome that is!

Love, Mommy

 

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Time

I feel like over all, I was well-prepared for the changes that having a baby would bring- the sleepless nights, the feelings of both joy and frustration, the thoughts of “what did I get myself into?” and the concept that everything in life would change.  I was not, however, prepared for my concept of time to change drastically.  Time is such a strange thing- and I am convinced that when a baby comes into the picture, time simply goes out the window.  Right now I live between feedings, naps, diaper changes, play time, and a tiny window where I can do something for myself- sometimes an hour, if I’m lucky.  I never realized how much time I used to have…that I no longer hold in my possession.

This morning I had every intention of getting up like I have been, at 6:00, feeding the baby, trying to get ready myself, and heading to church (an hour away) to see a friend of mine preach.  When I woke up at 7:00 instead, wondering why the baby hadn’t woken up to nurse yet, I realized that we would not be making it to church that morning, and since Corey needed to sleep after being up most of the night, I would probably not make it to my own congregation for worship either.  Then, between morning baby routines, lunch, making dinner for tonight, and taking care of the dog, I had only an hour or less to either: A) shower, B) work out, or C) nap in order for Corey to be able to go to an event he had planned to attend.  Showering was the wise choice! Never did I imagine I would have to make these choices.  Once again, time had escaped me.  Or rather, time went toward taking care of our child, which obviously is the most important thing right now.

But here is something that a lot of new parents will not say out loud: this transition and realization about time is VERY hard.  I speak honestly when I say that this very realization has brought me to tears several times during the past few weeks.  I realize that there will be days like this where I will not get to do something for myself.  There have been days that start before the sunrise and I’ll look at the clock hours later (which feels like minutes!), the sun is going down, and I have no idea where the day has gone.  Time is really nothing at all.  And this is the most challenge realization of all: that your time is no longer yours.  Or has it ever been?  And if it is ours, time is perhaps the most profound gift that we can give away, whether it is given to our child, spouse, friends, vocation, or even to ourselves.

And so I’m learning to appreciate and value time more and realize that it is so fleeting.  Most of the time, it goes very fast, and sometimes it goes slowly.  I’m learning that time is out of my control, yet it is also mine to give, and for others to receive (for better or for worse).  I will certainly keep this in mind as I return to the life of a pastor when my maternity leave is over.  Time management will take on a whole new meaning for me.  I used to be so great at managing my time…and now I have a lot of learning to do.

 

 

 

PS…How did I find time to write this post, you may ask?  I found a few minutes while the baby is in the carrier on my chest…multitasking at its finest!

 

 

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Parenting: A New Adventure!

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On December 21, 2015, Corey and I welcomed our son, Xavier Thomas, into the world!  He was 3 weeks early, but strong and healthy.  If you have been following my pregnancy journey, you will remember that I was having some signs of early labor starting at 32 weeks and was put on partial bedrest.  I had a few monitoring sessions, steroid injections (for baby’s lungs), and then I had high blood pressure for the last 2 weeks of my pregnancy, which added more concern to the mix.

So, on December 20th, I sang in the cantata at church (sitting down of course!) and then went back home to resume my position on the couch.  Meanwhile, Corey went to see the new Star Wars movie that afternoon.  When he returned home, I told him that I had been having some cramps, but I wasn’t too concerned since that tends to happen late in pregnancy.  However, by 11:00 that night, they were stronger and coming at intervals…so I waited them out until 2:00 am when I decided to call the doctor on call who wasn’t too concerned unless they were 5-7 minutes apart.  Then, I managed to fall asleep until 8:15 that morning!  But when I woke up, I realized that I was probably going into labor and called the doctor’s office.  We packed up our car, hospital bags and car seat in tow, and drove the hour to the hospital.  Along the way, I knew without a doubt that I was having contractions.  When I was examined by the nurse practitioner, her response was, “I’m surprised that you’re not in more pain than what you’re telling me because you are dilated 5 cm and I can see hair!”  So…off we went to labor and delivery to prepare to have our baby!  I had to laugh at the fact that they were wheeling me down the hall in this huge wheelchair with one of those waterproof pads under me because they were worried that my water was going to break!  My mom arrived a short while later.  I received an epidural (woo hoo!) and spent that part of labor watching Christmas Vacation and Sex and the City DVDs.  Finally, around 8:00 pm, I started to push…and this lasted for over 3 hours (ouch!!!) until finally, little man made his appearance at 11:33 pm!  Corey, my mom, and my dad were there with me the whole time, coaching me and encouraging me every step of the way.  I couldn’t have done it without them!

The whole thing was and is so surreal.  This whole bringing new life into the world thing is simultaneously the most challenging and beautiful thing there is.  So is parenting, as I have discovered over the course of these 2 weeks.  Being a new mom/parent has its share of ups and downs, frustrations, exhaustion, and times of feeling inadequate, yet there are many beautiful moments, laughter, cute baby sounds and faces, and moments of sheer happiness mixed in between.  There are TONS of diapers, late nights, odd hours, and lots of Netflix. I have been more emotional than I have ever been, and tears (both happy and frustrated ones!) have been a normal part of every day life over these past few weeks since our son has entered our life.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this new mom thing is easy or all sunshine and roses.  But do listen to those who tell you that it gets easier and it gets better.  And love is what keeps you going.

Corey has been an amazing father and husband to Xavier and to me.  I couldn’t ask for a better partner in all of this.  I don’t know what I would do without him!  My parents have also been a huge support, as well as my sister (all the way in CA!)  We also have appreciated the support from my congregation in the form of meals, cards, thoughtful emails, and phone calls.  I also have some great friends who have called to check in on us and have offered a listening ear.

Welcome to our world, little Xavier.  We love you!

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Songs of Christmas: Simeon’s Song

Luke 2:25-35:

A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.  The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law.  Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said,  “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation.  You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.  It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”  His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”

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Painting in my home of Jesus presented in the Temple

“Simeon was looking at a baby no more than 6 weeks old.  He was also looking at eternity.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw it all.  The cross.  The grave.  The resurrection.  Yet another confession of faith, spoken three decades before the start of Christ’s earthly ministry.”  

-Liz Curtis Higgs, The Women of Christmas

I’m not usually a fan of scary movies, but one of my favorites is the Sixth Sense.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a troubled little boy who has a dark secret: he can see and talk to dead people who walk around in his life like normal people.  They do not know they are dead, but they all seem to want something from him.  He is befriended by a child psychiatrist who sets out to help him.  Together, they try to come up with ways for the little boy to deal with this problem that has taken over his life.  I won’t ruin the ending for you if you haven’t seen it already, but it is definitely one of those shocking twist endings that you won’t forget.  It’s one of those movies where once you find out how it ends, you want to go back and look for the clues that you may have missed before, that if you had noticed them, you may have seen it coming.

Movies (or stories) like that are usually the best kind.  They keep you in suspense, and you don’t know what will happen next.  I’m one of those people that even if I have a guess, I would still be upset if someone ruined it for me- I want to see for myself how it’s going to end.  Sometimes I wonder, if I knew the end of the story, would I still want to watch it unfold?  Maybe, maybe not.  Or if I know that a movie has a sad or violent ending, would I still want to watch it?  Usually, but I have to be in the right mood or at least prepare myself for a story that doesn’t have a happily ever after.

Most of us, in our human way, do not want to know if something bad is coming, or we shy away from challenges if we see them coming our way.  If we know something will be difficult, we tend to look for an easier way forward.  When Mary and Joseph meet this mysterious man, Simeon, in the temple, he lays it all out there for them, and doesn’t give them a lot of choice in the way their story will unfold.  In a way, he gives away the ending of their story, and leaves them to decide how they will face the rest of their lives, knowing that with Jesus, their son, it will not be easy.

Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to do what is required of them by the law, which was to present their son, offer sacrifices to God, and for Mary to participate in a ritual cleansing after giving birth.  They acted and were treated like any other Jewish family with a newborn child.  According to the law of Leviticus, Mary would have been considered unclean for 7 days after childbirth, and then in a state of blood purification for 33 days.  Jesus would have been circumcised and given his name on the eighth day.  Mary was then not to touch anything holy or enter a sacred area until her purification was complete.  If a woman gave birth to a girl, her purification time was twice as long!  (That doesn’t quite seem fair!)  When her time was complete, Mary was to bring a sacrifice: a one year old lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a purification offering to the priest at the entrance of the Holy of Holies in the temple.  If a woman could not afford a sheep, she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for the burnt offering and one for the purification offering.  We are told that Mary brought two doves or pigeons.  Just think of it: she could not afford a sacrificial lamb, yet in her arms she carried the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  Mary was humble, but she was not ashamed.  She brought what she could.  God asks for no more than that (Higgs, Women of Christmas, 149).

As Mary and Jesus waited in the Court of Women, Joseph would have delivered her sacrifice to the priest.  Mary was a small town girl, a poor woman with an infant child, and probably not used to the crowds of the holy temple courts in Jerusalem.  She might have gone unnoticed as Joseph rejoined his family.  Maybe they breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they could return home to Galilee and go on with their lives.  But there was one man in the temple that day had who had waited a lifetime to meet Jesus, and this was his time.

We are not told too much about Simeon- not his tribe, his background, positon, or family status.  We do know that he is righteous, devout, waiting for the restoration of Israel, and that the Holy Spirit rested upon him.  He was in tune with God’s voice and presence in his life, and he eagerly awaited the time when God would send peace and light into the world.  Jesus looked like any other child, yet the Spirit opened Simeon’s eyes and heart to see Jesus for who he was: the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed.  It was by the power of the Spirit that Simeon knew this child and was able to speak with truth, blessing, joy, and hopeful hesitation over the challenging message he shared with Mary and Joseph.

He took Jesus in his arms as he shared his song and praise to God for the gift before him.  Simeon proclaims that because of this child, his eyes have beheld salvation not just for some, but for all, for this child will be a light to both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews).  Because he has now seen this child, Simeon will go live in peace for the rest of his days, knowing that his purpose has been fulfilled.  He then blessed the child and his parents and turned to Mary with words that no mother would really want to hear: that her child will be the cause of the falling and rising of many, and will be a sign that generates opposition and conflict.  Because of Jesus, the true thoughts of many will be revealed.  And finally, he tells her that a sword will pierce her innermost being as well.

One of my favorite Jewish traditions is the Hebrew naming and blessing of a new child.  During a worship service, the new parents bring the child forward to be blessed by the Rabbi and given a Hebrew name.  It is a way of welcoming the child into the Jewish community and to receive a blessing from God for his or her lifetime.  This ritual is somewhat similar to our sacrament of baptism, but has a somewhat different meaning and does not include water.  The child is given their Hebrew name, which will be used to call the child to the Torah for his or her bar or bat mitzvah later in life, and gives a significant meaning to the family’s involvement in the Jewish faith.  This is always a joyful and happy moment in the life of the Jewish community, and cause for celebration.

Simeon’s blessing for Jesus, however, was not meant to be necessarily uplifting or happy.  In his song, Simeon summed up the story of Jesus: his life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  And none of it was going to be easy.  How must have Mary felt upon hearing these words?  And what did it mean that a sword will pierce her innermost being?  She was the mother of Jesus, after all.  She had already overcome a mysterious conception and birth, and now faces a challenging world as a new mother, unsure of what the future would hold for her child.  And now this message that she will be deeply affected by the opposition and challenges that Jesus will face in his lifetime.

The sword that would pierce her being could mean many things.  It could be seen as the struggle that Mary might face in accepting the teachings of Jesus, his ministry, and the form it will take.  The sword could mean her impending grief over the cross and the death that Jesus would suffer.  It could mean that the whole of Jesus’ life would pierce her soul to the point that she would never be the same again.  That’s what it means to be a parent, isn’t it?  To love someone so much that you would do anything for them, yet knowing that at some point you have to let them go to become who they were meant to be, no matter how painful it might be for you?

But Mary knew that Jesus came from God, and really belonged to God from the beginning.  However, it still did not make it easy for her to hear these words- that the life and ministry of her son would pierce her soul and the souls of many who would either love him, oppose him, or even put him to death.  Just as Mary was the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ coming birth and his true identity, Simeon’s song is used to make Mary the first person to hear the not so good news of the opposition that Jesus’ teachings will evoke and of the divisions it will inspire among the people.

I might be showing my age here, but I did not learn until recently that Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was also assassinated 6 years after the death of her son as she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Alberta King

The 23 year old African American man who shot and killed her said he did it because he believed that all Christians were his enemies and that black ministers were a menace to black people.  We learned all about Martin Luther King, Jr., his teachings, his courage, his bravery, and his death in school.  But we never heard a word about his mother who helped raise him and teach him the values that he preached and used to lead a revolution for civil rights in our country.  Alberta worked hard to instill self-respect and respect for others in her children.  Martin once wrote of her that she “was behind the scenes setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.”  She was a source of strength for many after the assassination of her son and faced fresh tragedy the year following Martin’s death when her youngest son, Alfred, drowned in his pool.

Talk about a family who faced one tragedy upon another, yet had such a significant impact on the progression of justice and civil rights in the United States.  I couldn’t help but wonder what Alberta must have been feeling as she watched her son preach such a strong and divisive message at the time, putting his life and safety on the line again and again.  He suffered beatings, jail time, strong opposition, and eventually, death.  As she watched Martin grow up, did she know how it would end?  Did she see things in him that helped her prepare for the tough road ahead?  Did she know that her son was the one to lead a revolution for change and give hope to millions of people?  I don’t know too much about Alberta, but it seems to me that she had the courage and strength to raise up a son who was not afraid to go out and change the world, even in the face of opposition, violence, and the threat of harm- all in the name of justice and mercy for all persons in the name of Jesus, regardless of the color of their skin.

Alberta King had a difficult and tragic life that came to a tragic end.  In many ways, she reminds me of Mary, who knew early on that her son would set out to change the world, but it would not be easy.  And she would be the one to offer strength and support along the way, while having the faith to stand by and let Jesus go out and minister to a broken world.  This is what Simeon’s blessing and song tells Mary and can teach us today.  That in the unfolding story of Jesus, there is hope, salvation, and peace, yet there is also a challenge to stand up to the brokenness and divisiveness in the world.  Simeon tells Mary in his difficult words that she must not be afraid of what Jesus will teach, preach, and do for the world.  It is difficult, but it is necessary in order for the world to change.  Change only happens when passion, courage, and sacrifice are the driving forces.  With Simeon’s help, Mary began to prepare for this and to understand it in light of her infant son.

We will all be faced with swords in our own lives that will pierce our souls.  Whether it is a difficult diagnosis, a job loss, the death of a loved one, addiction, disease, heartache, or the beginning a new journey where we know that it will not be easy.  Advent reminds us that having faith isn’t about having all of the right answers or living a perfect life without challenges, flaws, or mistakes.  It’s about remembering that God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness to show us a better way.  Simeon blessed the child Jesus and spoke truths to his parents that were difficult to hear.  In the same way, God blesses us, speaks a word of peace, and whispers that this life is not always going to be easy, and yet there is hope and salvation there for the taking.  We must have faith and believe in it, even when divisions surround us and life does not unfold the way that we expect or want.

Simeon, upon taking Jesus in his arms, knew he was holding the hope and salvation for all people, and he had been waiting for this moment his entire life.  Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  Well, Simeon was about there, and he faced death without fear.  He’d prepared for this moment and was now ready to leave this world as he looked upon the face of his Savior.  Simeon felt God’s perfect peace in this moment, knowing that the world was in good hands.  My question is, do we have faith that the world in fact, is in good hands?  If not, how can we offer God’s blessing upon this broken world and find the courage to love, to change, and to transform it?  And how can we face head on the swords that pierce our own souls?  With God’s help, may it be so.  And may God grant us grace and courage to face the world out there unafraid, that we may find the faith of Mary, the peace of Simeon, and the transforming love of Jesus Christ during this holy season.  Amen.

 

 

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Songs of Christmas: Zechariah’s Song

Luke 1:67-80

John’s father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, “Bless the Lord God of Israel because he has come to help and has delivered his people.  He has raised up a mighty savior for us in his servant David’s house, just as he said through the mouths of his holy prophets long ago.  He has brought salvation from our enemies and from the power of all those who hate us.  He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and remembered his holy covenant, the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham.  He has granted that we would be rescued from the power of our enemies so that we could serve him without fear,  in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes, for as long as we live.  You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.  You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins.  Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”  The child grew up, becoming strong in character. He was in the wilderness until he began his public ministry to Israel.

“Zechariah’s song is all about something that he and Elizabeth could never do for themselves.  These are not the stories of our journey towards God.  They are the shocking stories of God coming down to do for us and through us that which we could never do for ourselves.”

James Harnish, When God Comes Down

Zechariah had waited his entire career as a priest to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and provide an incense offering for the people.  It was finally his turn.  When a priest like Zechariah offered incense, he stood just outside the Veil, behind which was the Holy of Holies where it was believed that the very presence of God was manifest.  Only the high priest was able to get closer to the revealed presence of God, and that was only once a year on the Day of Atonement.  Jewish tradition described a priest who gets to offer the incense as “rich and holy” for the rest of his life.[1]  When he poured the incense on the hot coals, he watched the smoke rise from them, symbolizing the prayers of the people of Israel.  What he got was a startling visit from the angel Gabriel with a life changing announcement- that he and his wife, Elizabeth, will have a son named John despite their old age, despite the fact that he and Elizabeth were not able to have children.  John will be a delight to his parents and to many people, and will bring many back to the Lord.  He will go forth to prepare the way and make paths straight, showing people the way of repentance, salvation, and peace.  Upon hearing this news, Zechariah stumbled out of the temple unable to speak. Elizabeth became pregnant, just as Gabriel had said.  We don’t hear another word from Zechariah until the day John is born and he is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to prophesy with his song.

This song, spoken or sung by Zechariah was meant for his son, but also for the people who would listen and receive a word of hope.  Its lyrics take us behind the scenes into the heart of a man on the eve of the Incarnation, when God would come down to earth.  Zechariah’s song is affirmation of the hope and joy to come- that his son, John, which means “the Lord is gracious,” will be the forerunner of the Savior of the world, and the dawn of a new world.  In Zechariah’s song, we hear his vision for John- that he will tell people of forgiveness of sin, he will share the joy of the dawn of heaven breaking upon God’s people, and giving light to those who sit in the darkness.  And finally, he will guide all on the path of peace.  After not speaking for 9 long months, Zechariah chose words that spoke right to the heart of a people in need of these things- of forgiveness, compassion, hope, light, and peace- words that we still need to hear today.

Have you ever had a time in your life when you knew you were standing on the brink of something big?  Maybe you had felt it coming for a while, or you get a feeling that something is on the horizon, but you don’t know what quite yet.  Or perhaps you know it’s time for something in your life to change, but you are waiting for a sign or the right things to fall into place.  From the moment that Zechariah set foot in the temple and met the angel Gabriel, he knew that he stood on the brink of something big- not just a miraculous child, but also at the brink of welcoming a Savior into the world.  He had front row seats to God’s biggest event, about to unfold before him.  He and Elizabeth were the ones chosen to be the forerunners for a new world, a new people, a new kingdom.

This past week, Corey and I were reflecting on the day that we met outside the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta.  It was the 2nd day of seminary orientation.  We became fast friends, and starting dating about a year and a half later.  It’s been quite a journey.  We were reflecting back on the moment we met as we were acknowledging that we are now standing on the brink of our next new adventure of having a baby- and it will probably be the biggest adventure yet.  I know it is coming, and it’s hard to fully accept and embrace all that I am feeling, and I’m taking it with a lot of faith.  It’s like many new, big, and important things in our lives that we await with anticipation, hesitation, worries, and perhaps some fears.   Perhaps you are standing on the brink of something big or are anticipating something to happen.  Maybe it’s a new job, or a medical procedure, or you are awaiting to hear some kind of news about yourself or a family member.  Maybe you are holding your breath along with the rest of the world and waiting with worry to see what tragedy will unfold in the world next.  Perhaps we are all waiting for some kind of emptiness in our lives to be filled with joy and hope.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story invites us to feel the spiritual emptiness and longing that they faced in their inability to have children.  But God came down to them into the midst of their emptiness, setting them on the edge of a new life in the form of a child who would prepare the way for Jesus.  Zechariah’s song, then, is about something that God has done that Zechariah and Elizabeth never could have done for themselves.  Not unlike the people surrounding Zechariah and Elizabeth, we too are people who are sitting in the darkness and need guidance on the path to peace.

Many of us turned on our TVs or computers this past Wednesday to see the news of yet another mass shooting in our country, this time in San Bernadino, CA where 3 suspects, armed with assault rifles, shot and killed 14 people and wounded at least 14 others at a community center.  News quickly spread throughout the country as we watched in horror as these events unfolded throughout the day.  There was actually another mass shooting on the same day in Savannah, GA that was not reported as widely where a man opened fire on 3 men and 1 woman.  This all coming after the massacre at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last week, and a few weeks ago a man turned himself in for shooting 17 people at a playground in New Orleans.

An online article was going around over the weekend that caught my attention with this headline: “There have been 334 days and 351 mass shootings so far this year.”  Let that sink in for a moment.  The BBC news network, while reporting on the latest mass shooting in the United States, titled their report, “Just another day in the United States of America: another day of gun fire, panic, and fear.”  Once again, many people, including politicians with the world as their stage, requested nothing but prayers from the American people.

The front page of the New York Daily News on Thursday was this:

god isn't fixing this

This wasn’t an attack on God or religious belief, but a bold statement to say that we as American people, especially those in power, need to do something about a country gone out of control with guns, violence, our justice system, and perhaps anger and mental illness.  Prayer is meant to be put into action.  If we just pray and say words, then we are doing nothing.  We are fixing nothing.  We continue to propel cycles of violence with no end in sight.  We are a tired people.  We have become a hopeless people.  We have lost our way.

On the other hand, if we were to argue against this headline, we might say that God has already “fixed this” by showing us the ways to live in peace, to love one another, and to value the humanity of each person (Bishop Coyner).  We just have to put those tools into action as we live out our lives on the pathways to peace.  Zechariah’s song reminds us of this “fix” that God provides through repentance, peace, and paving the way for Jesus.

Zechariah’s song for his son, who would become John the Baptist, the man who would preach repentance and forgiveness of sin, is just as relevant to us today as it was on the day Zechariah made his song known to those who would listen.  He awaits the day that these things will come to pass, where God will pour out his compassion upon those who walk in the dark, where people will repent of their sins and return to the Lord, where humanity longs to be guided on the path to peace.  We, as those who are receivers of this compassion and mercy, must preach shared responsibility, that prayers alone are not enough- that we must change our hearts and minds into actions and to know that we always must begin again by seeing new ways that God is coming into the world and being a part of bringing God into the midst of our broken and violent world.

I don’t own a gun.  I have never shot a bullet or been to a gun range.  I have never picked up a weapon against another human being.  But I am still part of a violent culture.  I still want God to come and set things right because we have surely lost our way.  But we can no more cause God to come down to be among us than we can make the sun rise in the morning…but we can train our eyes to see the light when it comes (Harnish, When God Comes Down, 11).  We can be a part of making the light known as we reflect it to others.

Zechariah knew that this was his task- to prepare the world for his son that would pave the way for the light…for the path to peace.  John the Baptist, after all, preached a gospel of repentance and God’s mercy to those who would listen.  He was the first to remind people that we are all sinners in need of a saving God- one that comes among us, full of grace and truth.  Zechariah proclaims to his listeners that his son will remind people that there is no longer “us” and “them,” but “we.”  Today, we still need to be reminded and to pray that we discover our “we-ness.”  Once we do that, only then will we learn not to kill each other, diminish each other, and separate each other.  We need to learn to see human beings again.  Only then will this song ring true in our world again- only then will God’s dawn of heaven break upon us and give light to this dark world, and guide us on the path of peace.

Some of you may recall a story of a young Muslim man who was attacked shortly after 9/11 by a Texan man who was claiming revenge for the attacks.  Just days after 9/11, 31 year old Mark Stroman went on a shooting spree in the Dallas area, killing two South Asian immigrants and shooting Rais Bhuiyan in the face at close range, blinding him in one eye.  When Stroman was arrested, he boastfully called himself the “Arab Slayer.”  But as Stroman sat on death row awaiting execution, he had an unlikely champion trying to save his life: Bhuiyan, the very man who spent years recovering from a gunshot wound to the eye and face.  When asked why he was trying to spare his attacker’s life, Bhuiyan, a Muslim who immigrated to the US from Bangladesh said, “I’ve had many years to grow spiritually.  I’m trying to do my best not to allow the loss of another human life.  I’ll knock on every door possible.”[2]  He sprang into action, knocking on doors, collecting signatures, working with the Texas Board of Pardons, and setting up a website called “World Without Hate.”  Among his supporters were several relatives of the victims who were killed by Stroman.

Despite Bhuiyan’s best efforts, Stroman was executed by the state of Texas on July 20, 2011.  But Bhuiyan serves as an example of mercy and forgiveness, and a champion for seeing humanity in the other, as hard and difficult as it may have been to overcome the bitterness and hatred that may have welled up inside of him, and could have been fuel for anger and revenge, and more violence.  His faith in God guided him to seek humanity and life in the life of another, and he found the mercy and compassion the gifts that Zechariah proclaims from God.  Not just for some, but for all of humanity and for the life of the world.  And all of this at the dawn of the birth of a child who will pave the way for people to come face to face with a Savior.

So on this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue to prepare our lives for the coming of Jesus into our midst once again, may we hear words of hope in Zechariah’s song.  May we hear a challenge to put our words, prayers, and faith into action in the world that God might be glorified as we pave the way for this presence in our midst.  And may we be willing to be guided on the path to peace.  May we also be reminded that Advent begins with the awareness that we cannot fully save ourselves.  None of us can give birth to the life, love, joy, and peace that God intends for us by our own human power.  We are not in this alone.  So we keep our eyes, hearts, and ears open to the ways in which God calls us out of his great compassion and mercy to live and work among us, and stirs our hearts to heal the world.  As we are reminded of these lyrics to Zechariah’s song, may it be so:

“Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.”

Amen.

 

[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/sermon-christmas-zecharaiah-song-benedictus-luke-1

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/43241014/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/victim-hate-crime-now-fights-his-attackers-life/#.VmBgzHarTIU

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Songs of Christmas: Mary’s Song

 

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!   In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.  Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.  He has shown strength with his arm.  He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.  He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.  He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

It was the first Friday of May when I found out I was pregnant.  The one thing I remember the most is when Corey came home from work that day and knelt down to kiss my stomach.  From that day on, we have been busy preparing for our baby to enter into the world.  That has been an adventure in itself from childbirth classes, assembling nursery furniture, and figuring out what all we need to keep our child safe and healthy.

No matter how we learn that children are coming into our world, whether through a positive pregnancy test, adoption, or a foster care situation, or learning that you will become a grandparent, it is a moment we will never forget.  Some of these moments are full of joy, some with fear, some with anxiety, some with confusion or relief.  Some, like me, had and still have all of these feelings!  For some it’s the end of a long journey to parenthood, for some it’s expected, while for others it’s unexpected.  For all, it’s the beginning of a new life journey filled with the ups and downs that come along with new life coming into the world.

So what must it have been like for young Mary?  At only age 14 or 15, she found herself engaged to be married to a man most likely much older than she was.  While she was not yet living with him, she was already considered to be his wife by all standards except for physical intimacy and co-habitation.  When the angel Gabriel came and announced the news of her conception, Mary’s reaction is rather counter-cultural to what we might expect.  After receiving the angel’s greeting with confusion and hesitation, she chooses words far beyond her years.  Here she is, a young woman, who while engaged, is not yet fully married by standards of the ancient world, who is now pregnant, and who faces the risk of death if found out.  She asks some fair questions such as, “How can this be since I have not yet known a man intimately?” and she wonders what kind of news this really is, yet her only response upon the angel leaving her is, “Let it be with me just as you have said.”

Whenever I read this, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop.  I can’t help but think that if a woman had written Mary’s story, this would have been the moment of panic, tears, running to her best friend, or in today’s world, sending out texts and making frantic phone calls to a doctor, or even a psychiatrist!  But we are not told of any of that.  In Mary’s patient and compassionate way, she accepts this news and keeps it buried in her heart, knowing by faith that this news of a new child will turn the world upside down.

But it is a while before she is really assured of the truth and meaning of her situation.  She goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who the angel told her was 6 months pregnant.  Another bold move for Mary.  She leaves her hometown without her fiancé or her family knowing anything of her situation, and travels perhaps 70, 80, or 100 miles to visit a relative for no other reason than to seek confirmation of her situation and Elizabeth’s.  Perhaps on the journey, Mary considered ways that she might share her mysterious news with her cousin.  “I’m carrying God’s baby” may not go over so well!  But Mary’s worries came to a halt when, upon seeing Elizabeth, her cousin proclaimed the good news given to her by the Holy Spirit as her baby leapt in her womb with these words, “God has blessed you among women, and he has blessed the child you carry.  Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises made to her.”

We are told that Elizabeth proclaimed these words with a loud voice- with confidence, with faith, with gladness.  Imagine- in those days, men were the ones who usually conferred blessings.  Yet here we have a woman proclaiming a blessing upon another woman.  Even from the womb, Jesus was changing the culture and turning the world upside down (Higgs, Women of Christmas, 67).  And there is more to Elizabeth’s words: she is the first to proclaim Jesus as Lord when she asks, “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  With her words, she makes her confession of faith through the knowledge given to her by the Holy Spirit- and Jesus wasn’t even born yet.  Elizabeth’s words to Mary were a confirmation of God’s promise, and more powerful than any pregnancy test!  Jesus was alive and growing inside of her!  And it was through Elizabeth’s blessing and affirmation that Mary found the confidence to sing her song of joy, known to us today as the Magnificat, or “Mary’s Song.”

So often we tend to forget that Mary needed this affirmation from her cousin before accepting her uncertain and mysterious future.  We know that Gabriel appears with this cryptic news, and then we want to automatically jump to Mary singing her beautiful song.  We forget that it was the holy dialogue between these two women that gave her the voice she needed to sing, preach, and praise the Lord.  I admire Mary.  When I found out I was pregnant, the last thing I honestly wanted to do was sing.  Sure, I felt joy and excitement, but also feelings of anxiety, worry, and a little bit of fear.  A small part of me felt like I was taking the weight of the world on my shoulders…or at least in the knowledge that an entire person’s life was now in my hands.  That did not cause me to want to burst into song.  But there is a reason that God chose Mary to bear this holy, scary, and almost unspeakable task at the risk of exclusion, and even death.  God knew she would say yes.  God knew that she had the faith and the courage to take this on.  Through Mary, I am reminded that God uses each of us, no matter who we are, to achieve God’s purposes in the world.  In the words of Mary’s song, I am reminded that in God, we find strength and courage to sing out loud and strong, despite our hesitations, fears, and anxieties.  We are called to praise God, even in the midst of uncertainty.

The words that Mary chooses tell us a lot about her faith, her hopes, and her dreams for her unborn child.  As my child is quickly trying to make his appearance into the world, I find myself every now and then writing letters to him in my head.  I eventually need to sit down and write them out so that I remember everything that I want to say to him as he enters this world.  Mary’s song is perhaps the first love letter to her son, but attributed to the God who has given her this mysterious gift.

The words she chooses have very obvious similarities to the Song of Hannah back in 1 Samuel when she praises God for the gift of her son after not being able to conceive a child.  But another way to look at Mary’s song is to note that it is a wonderful patchwork of Hebrew textual allusions and images that are found in the Hebrew (or OT) scriptures.  Mary must have recalled the hymns of praise by Moses and Miriam in Exodus, Asaph in Chronicles, Deborah in Judges, and King David in the psalms (Homiletics).  These are stories and songs she would have known by heart, and she chooses to praise God as she recalls those who have gone before her in faith and have overcome the many obstacles set before them to achieve world changing events.  She, too, now falls in line with those who placed their trust in God and have gone on to change the world, despite the fact that God continues to choose the most unexpected people to do so.

As Mary’s response to both Elizabeth’s blessing and the angel Gabriel’s proclamation, Mary’s song offers praise to God for the surprises and God’s providence.  Her words focus on the sociological implications of God’s work in the world, God’s paradoxical preferences to the lowly, the hungry, and the poor.  Her main focus, however, is on praising an active, saving God.  Her song is not yet a call toward a new saving activity, but she surely knew that God would guide her footsteps on this new path she would take to bring a savior into the world.

In today’s world where bad news tends to make the most noise and the worst news stories are the first we see when we turn on the news, it is a hopeful news story that we hear today as Mary sings her song.  Many of us, if we’re honest, say we want good news, but we won’t buy it.  A few years ago in Sacramento, the Good News Paper focused only on feel good news stories…but they only lasted 36 months before going bankrupt.  A similar paper even was tried out here in Indiana, and the publishers had to result to giving it away to people!

As a human race, too often we thrive on the drama and suspense and the news that will get talked about, and it’s usually bad.  So the question to pose as we look at Mary’s song of praise is, do we lack of enthusiasm for the Christmas story because the good news can be boring?  God is love, Mary is the favored and chosen one to bear Jesus who doesn’t put up much of a fight, Joseph is a righteous man, and Jesus will come as a sweet little baby.  We’ve heard the story so many times and have seen one too many Christmas pageants.  Maybe it just doesn’t excite us anymore.

But we are told that Mary pondered what kind of greeting this might be from the angel.  Perhaps she expected bad news…but what unfolds is a story that she succeeds in making headline news out of what God has done and will do.  God will use her to turn the world upside down.  She will certainly make the tabloids as an unwed mother in an unkind and unaccepting world, but she is determined to see this good news story unfold all the way to the end, and puts her trust in God in the midst of it.

Her song is a song of praise, placed into motion by the Spirit of God and a woman who affirmed her holy and divine state: her body as a holy vessel.  The final verses of the song praise the accessibility of God’s mercy- first as it was experienced by Abraham, then to the nation of Israel, and now, to all descendants of Abraham forever.  This was her first love letter to her child, inspired by none other than God himself.

Corey and I have been hard at work over the last few weeks preparing for our baby.  Perhaps now is the time I need to put my first love letter to my child at the top of the list.  Mary now has the same journey of preparation, but with very different and difficult implications, not just for her, but for the entire world.  As we begin this season of Advent- of waiting, of anticipation, of hesitation, and joy, may we hear these words of Mary’s song as a guide to how we can praise God in the midst of uncertain circumstances and in the midst of an often unkind and broken world.  As we enter into Advent, may we come with the same rejoicing and preparation as Mary, knowing that while the good news doesn’t always make the headlines, it certainly should in this case and in our lives.  Mary’s news in the form of a song speaks for itself.  Hear these words once again as we close this time together:

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!   In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.  Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.  He has shown strength with his arm.  He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.  He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.  He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Life and Babies…They Happen

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It has been a rough few days.  Last Wednesday, at my doctor’s appointment, I was told that I am having some minor contractions and possible signs of early labor (at 32 weeks!).  My doctor put me on what I’m calling “partial bed rest,” meaning very limited activity, only doing what is necessary.  This means no exercise, no house work, no laundry, and not doing anything that I don’t absolutely have to do.  So since then, I’ve been sitting around on the couch and doing as little as possible, and drinking TONS of water and liquids to stay hydrated, which is another way to slow any signs of early labor.  At least I’ve gotten quite a bit of other work done…

This last week brought another challenge as I started to feel a lot of pressure in my pelvic area, and I was told that the baby has started to drop a lot sooner than he should be.  So…that meant 2 rounds of steroid injections to help his lungs develop in the case that he decided to make an early appearance into the world.  We had to go all the way back to our hospital (2 days in a row!), which is an hour away to receive this 2nd injection.

In the midst of all of this, Corey and I had to cancel our Thanksgiving plans, which included traveling to KY to see his family, who had planned a get together and baby shower for us so that we could stay close by and keep me resting.  We know they understood, but this was a difficult decision to have to make.

And if you know me, you know that I am self-sufficient, independent, and like to stay active and be in the mode of getting things done.  I hate just sitting around not doing anything.  This has been a whole new challenge for me.  And it happens to fall during a very busy time of year.  I know that what I’m doing is very important for my baby and for me, but I am finding myself so frustrated and with a feeling of uselessness.  I’ve had to give up singing in the community choir, holiday plans with friends, and various other activities that I have had planned and that bring me a lot of joy.  I also love me some Black Friday shopping…which I had to do from the couch this year!  Not nearly as much fun!!

I also feel like I’m letting my congregation down, even though I am still committed to preaching on Sundays and corresponding with people through phone and email.  We are also so grateful for their support during this time.  We had several invitations to Thanksgiving dinner, which was much appreciated!  We were able to spend Thanksgiving with my parents, who now only live an hour away.

Not to mention, the guilt I feel that I cannot prepare the nursery right now in the way that I had hoped or planned on doing.  Our basic pieces are in place, but there is still so much to be done before the baby gets here.  We tend to think that we have time to get things done, but life happens and things change very quickly.  This kid isn’t even born yet and he’s teaching me the important lessons of patience and flexibility…

Corey has been a lifesaver.  I can’t say it’s been easy for either of us.  But he has done laundry, cooked meals, walked the dog, taken me to appointments, and has been by my side this whole time.  I can’t say thank you to him enough.

I keep telling myself it’s about perspective.  The baby’s health comes first, and it’s not about me at this point really.  Secondly, when we were in labor and delivery the other night where I was to receive my 2nd injection, the nurses hooked me up to a monitor for awhile to see how the baby was sounding, if I was having contractions, etc.  We watched and listened for awhile and everything looked and sounded good.  Corey said that he had drawn us some great “heart art” on the monitor 🙂  My mind felt a sense of peace for the first time in a few days.  By that point, the severe pressure I’d been feeling had let up as well.  At one point, another young woman was brought into the room, and we could overhear that she believed her water had broken.  Her due date was not until February.  I realized at that point how fortunate we were to know that at least if our baby was born that night, we would be okay.  The news I heard from the other side of the curtain was uncertain and scary.  My heart still goes out to that young woman and her baby, wherever they are.

So as I head into the Advent season, which starts this Sunday, I go into it with hesitation, not knowing what the next few weeks will bring.  I am preaching on Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) on Sunday morning, and I’ve found it to be a very appropriate text for all that I am feeling and going through.  And it gives me hope.

In the meantime, baby and I are just praying for at least 5-6 more weeks of “baking time” before he decides to make his appearance.  I’d love to make it through Christmas Eve, but again, life happens.  If he’s already learned anything from his mom, it’s a lack of patience!  Hopefully he will change his mind and decide that right now, he’s in the right place, right where he should be, and to take his time.  Perhaps that’s a good lesson for me as well.

Peace to you on the Advent journey of waiting and anticipation.

 

 

 

 

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