Saturday, December 31, 2016

new years eve

Opening Prayer: O God, as we look back on another year gone by (whether difficult or relatively easy), we do so with deep sense of gratitude for how you have cared for us, for the things you have done for us, for the ways you have led and guided us, and for the way you have provided for us.  And we are filled with joy.  Not necessarily joy in our circumstances, but joy in your presence, your love, and your redemption.  And as we look to the year ahead, Father, help us to look at it as another opportunity to love and trust you.  May our lives, in the coming year, be more about your Kingdom and less about our own.  Amen.

Scripture: Psalm 126:1-6

Journal: How has God filled your mouth with laughter and your heart with songs of joy in the last year?  What are you grateful for?  What have you been challenged by?  How has that effected your present level of joy?  What do you dream that the coming year will be like?  What do you long for it to be marked by?  How will you move in that direction?

Reflection: Psalm 126 does not give us this joy as a package or a formula, but there are some things it does do.  It shows up the tininess of the world’s joy and affirms the solidity of God’s joy.  It reminds us of the accelerating costs and diminishing returns of those who pursue pleasure as a path toward joy.  It introduces us to the way of discipleship which has consequences in joy.  It encourages us in the way of faith to both experience and share joy.  It tells the story of God’s acts which put laughter into people’s mouths and shouts on their tongues.  It repeats the promises of a God who accompanies his wandering, weeping children until they arrive home, exuberant, “bringing in the sheaves.”  It announces the existence of a people who assemble to worship God and disperse to live to God’s glory, whose lives are bordered on one side by a memory of God’s acts and the other by hope in God’s promises, and who along with whatever else is happening are able to say, at the center, “We are glad.” (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: It seemed like a dream, too good to be true, when God returned Zion’s exiles. We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune. We were the talk of the nations—“God was wonderful to them!” God was wonderful to us; we are one happy people.
     And now, God, do it again—bring rains to our drought-stricken lives so those who planted their crops in despair will shout hurrahs at the harvest, so those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing. (The Message)

Friday, December 30, 2016

emptied

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, you who chose to step out of the throne room of heaven and come down to earth, you who laid aside your divine rights and privileges to enter into our pain and brokenness, you who—in some amazingly mysterious way—chose to empty yourself and make yourself nothing for our sakes; give us the strength and the courage, this day, to do the same.  Amen.

Scripture: Philippians 2:5-11

Journal: What does it look like during this season to have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus?

Reflection: The nothingness from which we are created permeates human existence like rainforest mist.  It is an impoverishment so profound, so persistent, that no self-improvement efforts can diminish it and every illusion of self-sufficiency will compound it.  This poverty God fully assumed in the manger birth.  That this choice might be visible, the One who was flesh of our flesh shared without reserve the afflictions of the poor.  Like them, his wisdom was despised, he was unjustly treated, left without friends, mocked and humiliated, “crushed and abandoned.”  These and many other sufferings have been gathered into the very heart of God.  The destitution of human life is now eternally and inseparably part of the poverty of God.
     God’s poverty, however, is greater than the human poverty God has willingly embraced.  God is forever poor because the gates of God’s heart, opened to receive the full burden of our poverty, are also opened for the outpouring of God’s love in the freedom that only love creates.  Who can measure the poverty of divine love as it seeks a hearing in a hostile, self-absorbed world?  Love bade God take a place with the poor, who are waiting—waiting for someone to stop, acknowledge their dignity, listen to their voice.  ~ John S. Mogabgab

Prayer

Closing Prayer: O Jesus, how far down you had to come to reach us.  How small and how low.  Can anyone really comprehend the magnitude of that downward journey?  You, who had always enjoyed true delight, the loving intimacy of the Trinity, were willing to step out of the ecstasy of that intimacy because of your great desire to bring us into it.  You, who were in very nature God, laid aside your Divine privilege and position to become a man of sorrows, despised and rejected by men.  You, the Eternal One, willing to become a mere mortal.  You, the Creator of all, willing to become one of the created.  O the great sacrifice!  O the immense love!  You, O Christ, emptied yourself of more than we can ever comprehend or imagine.  You, O Christ, made yourself of no reputation (Phil. 2:7 KJV).  And you, O Christ, have given us an example, that we might do the same.  Lord Jesus, during this season when we celebrate your stepping down out of the throne room of heaven to become one of us, show us what this emptying looks like for each of us in the days ahead. (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

gloria

Opening Prayer: Help us, O God, to join our voices with those of the heavenly chorus, proclaiming your glory, and celebrating your entrance into our dark and broken world.  Glory to God in the highest, and peace among those with whom he is pleased!  Amen.

Scripture: Luke 2:8-21

Journal: Where are you in this story?  Have a conversation with the shepherds today.  Let them tell you what it was like to see God’s glory revealed.

Reflection: On Christmas night the shepherds are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God, and they are very much afraid.  The tremendous, unearthly radiance shows that the angel is a messenger of heaven and clothes him with an incontrovertible authority.  With this authority he commands them not to be afraid but to embrace the great joy he is announcing to them.  And while the angel is speaking thus to these poor frightened people, he is joined by a vast number of others, who unite in a “Gloria” praising God in heaven’s heights and announcing the peace of God’s goodwill to men on earth.  Then, we read, “the angels went away from them into heaven.”  In all probability the singing was very beautiful and the shepherds were glad to listen; doubtless they were sorry when the concert was over and the performers disappeared behind heaven’s curtain.  Probably, however, they were secretly a little relieved when the unwonted light of divine glory and the unwonted sound of heavenly music came to an end, and they found themselves once more in their familiar earthly darkness.  They probably felt like shabby beggars who had suddenly been set in a king’s audience chamber among courtiers dressed in magnificent robes and were glad to slip away unnoticed and take to their heels.
     But the strange thing is that the intimidating glory of the heavenly realm, which has now vanished, has left behind a human glow of joy in their souls, a light of joyous expectation, reinforcing the heavenward-pointing angel’s word and causing them to set out for Bethlehem.  Now they can turn their backs on the whole epiphany of heavenly glory—for it was only a starting point, an initial spark, a stimulus leading to what was really intended; all that remains of it is the tiny seed of the word that has been implanted in their hearts and that now starts to grow in the form of expectation, curiosity and hope: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  They want to see the word that has taken place.  Not the angel’s word with its heavenly radiance: that has already become unimportant.  They want to see the content of the angel’s word, that is, the Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.  They want to see the word that has “happened,” the word that has taken place, the word that is not only something uttered but something done, something that cannot only be heard but also seen. (Into the Dark with God by Hans Urs von Balthasar)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Jesus Christ, our newborn King: we rejoice that you came among us in all your glory, taking on our life so that we might share in yours.  In your conception and birth you’ve come to remove our sin—ours since we were first conceived—delivering to us the hope of new life.  Make your home among us today and always.  Amen. (Seeking God’s Face by Philip Reinders)

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

holy innocents

Opening Prayer: Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart, and give me right faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, wisdom and understanding, Lord, that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen. ~St. Francis of Assisi

Scripture: Matthew 2:12-23

Journal: What do you do with these verses from Matthew’s gospel?  Is there a weeping or mourning that you are being asked to endure during this season?  What is it?  How are you bearing it?  Where is God in the midst of it?

Reflection: It is the constant fear of every tyrant that somewhere, perhaps in an obscure village, perhaps at that very moment, there is a baby born who will one day signal the end of his power.  According to the Gospel of Matthew, this fear was realized for King Herod when wandering wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
     By all accounts, Herod was a man of extreme brutality.  He conceived of a simple plan: Rather than sit and wait anxiously for the day of reckoning with this future “king,” why not simply kill the babe before he could grow and pose a threat?  But when the wise men failed to cooperate with his plan, Herod simply ordered his troops to the village of Bethlehem, there to kill every male child under the age of two.  The order was given, and it was dutifully carried out.
     But the reader knows, as Herod does not, that the massacre is pointless.  Joseph, forewarned in a dream, has taken his family into exile in Egypt.  The child lives.
     This terrible story, omitted from the typical Christmas pageant, is a vivid reminder of the violent world into which Jesus was born.  There were certainly those for whom the coming of the Messiah represented anything but good news.  Did Jesus at some point learn the story of his birth and of the children who had perished in his place?  If so, that chapter in his education is reserved for the “hidden years,” beyond the scope of the Gospel narratives.  From the early centuries, however, the church has commemorated the feast of these Holy Innocents.  Unlike traditional martyrs who would later die bearing witness to Christ, these little ones died unwittingly in the place of Christ.  They were killed by the same interests that would later conspire in the death of Jesus and for the same reasons—to stifle from birth any hope that the world might be changed.
     In our own time whole villages have been massacred on the basis of similar reports: “In such-and-such-a-hamlet the peasants have formed a cooperative. . . . It is well known where this is likely to lead. . . . Advise that appropriate action be taken before the danger spreads.”
     The feast of the Holy Innocents is not simply a memorial to those who died before their time.  These infants represent all those cut down to prevent the seed of liberation from taking root and growing.  They are those who die in the dream of a different future, hoping but never knowing that their redeemer lives.  In remembering the feast of the Holy Innocents the church commemorates these victims of Herod’s rage.  But it also celebrates his failure.
     His power is doomed.  The child lives. (All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Lord God, what a hard reminder that things are never neat and tidy in this life, but often messy and painful.  We cannot escape the pain and brokenness of this life no matter how hard we try.  There is no way out, only through.  Thank you that you are that way through.  In you there is hope that one day all things will be redeemed, even the evil of our own hearts.  Lord, have mercy!  Amen. (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

a gift

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, you are truly God’s indescribable gift.  May we, in turn, give you the gift of our very lives, in response to your extravagant love and affection.  Amen.

Scripture: Matthew 2:10-11

Journal: How will you open your treasures to him today?  What will you give to Jesus?

Reflection:
O Thou who always art all everywhere
Art now confined in this small space, defined
By skin and muscle, skeleton; you wear
A baby’s face—eyes, cheeks, chin, lips like wine
Or blood.  Beneath your tiny breastbone beats
Within your newborn flesh a human heart:
In Thou, O Son, the heart of humans meets
God’s heart and beats anew. And though in part
I see and I know, I yet see face to face
Because you cloister in this skin, this straw
Strewn crib, this cattle stall, this place
Particular, grim, but glimmering now
With Thou, O Thou, dear bound unbounded All,
Thou tabernacling fleshed Emmanuel.
~Kimberlee Conway Ireton

Prayer

Closing Prayer: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.
     Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed, the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
     Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.
     O what can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: I will give my heart. (In the Bleak Midwinter by Christina Rossetti)

Monday, December 26, 2016

room

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, help us to make room for you.  Help us to make space that you may be born anew within us and among us.  Forgive us for filling up our lives and our spaces; it is an addiction of the highest order.  Give us the discipline and the courage and the freedom and the intention to consistently make room for you in our daily lives.  Amen.

Scripture: Luke 2:6-7

Journal: Do you have room for Jesus in your life these days?  How will you make room for him during this season?

Reflection: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ comes uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst.  (Raids on the Unspeakable by Thomas Merton)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Make your home, Lord Jesus, within us and among us this day.  Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

christmas day

Opening Prayer: O Great Light of the world, shine on us, dwell in us, and allow us to celebrate your coming into our darkness this day.  Give us the joy of those who have been rescued from darkness and despair by the coming of your light and your hope.  Amen.

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

Journal: What does it mean to you today that the light has come into our darkness?  What hope does it give you?  What joy does it produce in you?  How is God calling you to walk in the light this day, and every day?

Reflection: Christmas tries to point to an inner light, a tree of lights inside the house of our being, and invites us to come close and ponder its beauty.  We notice this light because it is contrasted with an outer darkness.  And it defies this darkness, refusing to allow the outer world to dictate the terms of existence.
     Yet it is important to note the darkness does not go away.  Although it is not the overwhelming power it pretends to be, darkness plays an essential role in becoming conscious of the revelation.  “What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
     The Christmas revelation can be phrased: no matter how severe the darkness of the outer world is, it cannot overcome the inner and transcendent light.  Although we do not always reflect on it, there is an edge to Christmas, and in-your-face attitude.  Chesterton put it simply and well: “A religion that defies the world should have a feast that defies the weather.”  So I wish you a defiant Christmas. ~John Shea

Prayer

Closing Prayer: O God, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—light! sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants—all their whips and cudgels and curses—Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian. The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood, Will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days! For a child has been born—for us! the gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom.
     He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always. The zeal of God-of-the-Angel-Armies will do all this.  Thank you, thank you, thank you! (The Message)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

christmas eve

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, you are the Word made flesh.  On this holy night we celebrate the fact that God did not leave us alone, but sent you to dwell among us and within us.  Be the light in our darkness, be our guide in the journey, and be our help along the way.  Amen.

Scripture: John 1:1-18

Journal: How are you preparing your heart to receive the Word made flesh?  How has Jesus been the light in your darkness?  How have you tasted and experienced his grace over the last few weeks or months?  How does he want to make his home within you in a new way? 

Reflection: On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Titus 2:11).
     The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God.  He has entered our history; he has shared our journey.  He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light.  In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate.  He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it.  He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
     On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness.  Our Father loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land.  Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness.  He is mercy: our Father always forgives us.  He is our peace.  Amen. ~Pope Francis 

Prayer

Closing Prayer:
O God, who spoke all creation into being:
When you created human flesh,
we betrayed you by our disobedience.
When you led us out of slavery in Egypt,
we doubted and defied you.
Yet you chose to come among us
through your Son, Jesus Christ,
who suffered death on our behalf,
putting an end to the power of sin and death.
For this great gift of your steadfast hope,
we give you thanks.
Help us, O Lord, to keep vigil this night.
Help us to watch for the signs of your coming into our midst,
not in the splendid palaces of power,
but in hearts humbled by need.
Help us to believe that the darkness of cruelty and sin
will never overcome the light, and the mercy, of Christ.
Help us to endure,
knowing that the evil and injustice of this world
cannot prevail against your Word.
We ask this in the name of your Word made flesh,
our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.
~Kathleen Norris

Friday, December 23, 2016

christmas eve eve

Opening Prayer: Lord God, you are, and always have been, in the intricate details of life.  It is easy for us to blow right by and overlook if we are not paying attention, but it shows that you are a very intentional God.  Help us, Lord God, to notice your hand and your intention in the details of our lives, as well as the details of this day.  Amen.

Scripture: Matthew 1:1-17

Journal: What captures you most about the genealogy of Jesus?  What do you notice?  How does it speak to you?

Reflection: By Christmas Eve, most of us find ourselves very far from our true reasons for celebrating, reasons that are so eloquently expressed in the processional of the Christmas Vigil in the Byzantine rite: “Rejoice, Jerusalem!  All you lovers of Sion, share our festivities!  On this day the age-old bonds of Adam’s condemnation were broken, paradise was opened for us, the serpent crushed, and the woman, whom he once deceived, lives now as mother of the creator.”
     Here, in just a few simple words, is the essence of Christmas.  It is not merely the birth of Jesus we celebrate, although we recall it joyfully, in song and story.  The feast of the Incarnation invites us to celebrate also Jesus’ death, resurrection, and coming again in glory.  It is our salvation story, and all creation is invited to dance, sing, and feast.  But we are so exhausted.  How is it possible to bridge the gap between our sorry reality and the glad, grateful recognition of the Incarnation as the mainstay of our faith?  We might begin by acknowledging that if we have neglected the spiritual call of Advent for yet another year, and have allowed ourselves to become thoroughly frazzled by December 24, all is not lost.  We are, in fact, in very good shape for Christmas.  
     It is precisely because we are weary, and poor in spirit, that God can touch us with hope.  This is not an easy truth.  It means that we accept our common lot, and take up our share of the cross.  It means that we do not gloss over the evils we confront every day, both within ourselves and without.  Our sacrifices may be great.  But as the martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said, it is only the poor and hungry, those who know they need someone to come on their behalf, who can celebrate Christmas.
     Tonight we are asked to acknowledge that the world we have made is in darkness.  We are asked to be attentive, and keep vigil for the light of Christ.  The readings are not particularly comforting.  Psalm 88, a lament which is also commonly read on Good Friday, is stark in its appraisal: “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol,” the underworld of death.  The passage from Acts asks us to consider that, just as Israel needed God to lead them out of Egypt, so we need Christ to lead us out of our present slavery to sin.  We, and our world, are broken.  Even our homes have become places of physical violence.  It is only God, through Jesus Christ, who can make us whole again.
     The prophecy of Isaiah allows us to imagine a time when God’s promise will be fulfilled, and we will no longer be desolate, or forsaken, but found, and beloved of God.  We find a note of hope also in the Gospel of Matthew.  In a long list of Jesus’ forbears, we find the whole range of humanity: not only God’s faithful, but adulterers, murderers, rebels, conspirators, transgressors of all sorts, both fearful and bold.  And yet God’s purpose is not thwarted.  In Jesus Christ, God turns even human dysfunction to the good.
     The genealogy of Jesus reveals that God chooses to work with us as we are, using our weaknesses, even more than our strengths, to fulfill the divine purpose.  At tonight’s vigil, in a world as cold and cruel and unjust as it was at the time of Jesus’ birth in a stable, we desire something better.  And in desiring it, we come to believe that it is possible.  We await its coming in hope. (Christmas Eve Vigil by Kathleen Norris)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: God, thank you that you use ordinary, flawed people to accomplish your purposes in this world.  It gives me hope that somehow, someway, your purposes can be accomplished in and through me as well.  Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

the journey to bethlehem

Opening Prayer: Lord Jesus, the journey to Bethlehem has indeed been a long one, and it has not been easy to watch and to wait and to stay alert and ready for your coming.  And now we find ourselves near the end of the journey, ready to welcome and receive you anew into our hearts and lives and world.  So come, Lord Jesus!  Come into your world and bring us the life and the love and the hope for which we have been so deeply longing.  Amen.

Scripture: Luke 2:1-5

Journal: Where are you in your journey to Bethlehem?  What has the season of Advent been like for you?  Are you ready for the Christ to be born anew in your heart?

Reflection:
Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds!

I went.  Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened—
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.

Oh the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as the sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!

Still they drowsed on—
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.

Brothers!  I whispered.  It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
Immaculate still as when you thundered forth
On the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star

still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
~Christmas Poem by Mary Oliver

Prayer

Closing Prayer: The time is near, Lord Jesus.  We are filled with joyful expectation of your arrival.  Prepare our hearts to receive you, whenever and however you choose to come.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

with us

Opening Prayer: Jesus, you are truly Immanuel, God with us.  You share in this flesh and blood life, entering my ordinary circumstances, filling it with wonder, hope, and promise.  So, like the shepherds, make me quick and ready to spread the good news to all.  Amen. (Seeking God’s Face by Philip Reinders)

Scripture: Isaiah 7:10-17

Journal: What are you longing for in your life with God these days?  How are you longing for him to show up?  How has God been with you during this season?

Reflection: What a promise!  And more than just a promise, what a statement of who God is!  He is Immanuel!  That is his name!  Thus, he is the God who just can't stay away.  He is God with us!  In the midst of our deepest darkness, he is with us.  In the midst of our most desperate loneliness, he is with us.  In the midst of our most unimaginable pain, he is with us.  When our hearts have been broken beyond repair, he is with us.  When we have made a total mess of our lives, he is with us.  When tragedy strikes, he is with us.  When we are lost, left, or abandoned, he is with us.  At the times we feel most unlovable and ashamed, he is with us.  When we feel like complete and utter failures, he is with us.  When we feel like all hope is lost, he is with us.  When we feel completely broken and inept, he is with us.  When we are terrified of what lies before us, he is with us.  When we are uncertain about our futures, he is with us.  And even when life seems to be going "just fine thank you" he is with us even then.  In fact, the psalmist (Psalm 139:7-12) tells us that there is nowhere we can go where he is not with us.  Just open your eyes and your ears, he is there.  Somewhere.  Even if he is there in a way—or a place, or a form—that you didn't expect.  He is with us!  It's just who he is.  Thanks be to God. (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Thank you, O God, that you are ever and always God with us.  Thank you for the gift of this season where we contemplate and celebrate that marvelous truth.  Amen.  (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

yes

Opening Prayer: Yes, Father!  Yes!  And always Yes! ~Francis de Sales

Scripture: Luke 1:39-56

Journal: Where in your life is God asking you to say “yes” to him?  What does that look like?

Reflection: For many Christians it has perhaps become commonplace to view Advent as a season of inevitability, a ritual expectation of the birth of the Son of God, surely, but one that lacks suspense.  We already know how the story will turn out, don’t we?  The Holy Family will make it to Bethlehem; they will find a manger; Jesus will be born; everything will run as planned and on schedule.  Yet it is worthwhile to recall that Advent celebrates birth, one of the most vulnerable and human moments, and to remind ourselves that Jesus was an unexpected child: Mary had a different life planned for herself and Joseph, not to mention Joseph’s own hopes and dreams for his family.
     What must those cold final months of pregnancy have been like for Mary, away from home and desperate for shelter?  In our still male-centered world, we may think more of the coming of Jesus than of the worries and concerns of his mother, who knew a life we often do not admit, one surely full of confusion about her role as well as dreams and fears for her family’s well-being and future.  Do we give enough attention in our prayer and celebration to he interior life—this young woman called by forces she did not fully understand to give birth to a child whose coming was shrouded in so much mystery?
     I am of an age where my friends and siblings seem to have acquired an incredible fecundity.  Not a month goes by without the good news that one or more of them is expecting.  Pregnancy involves uncertainty, of course, so they are careful not to make an announcement too soon.  Often they communicate the news subtly.  A friend declines a glass of wine at dinner, sisters start whispering in the corner at family gatherings, boxes of clothes reappear out of attics and closets, and suddenly everyone realizes the good news.  Each time, though, there is worry, but more often than not it is the worry of middle-class Americans supported by family, society, and financial security.  It is not the worry of an unmarried teenager living at subsistence level in a land under military occupation; it is not that of a woman struggling to avoid public scandal, yet singing a hymn of hope in an environment more suggestive of its opposite.
     The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once called Mary’s Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung,” not a Christmas carol or a recitation of pious treacle but a “hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”  The woman who sang that song was not the serene and half-asleep royal figure depicted in Western art over the centuries, but a young woman fully alive in history, whose answer to God had consequences both long-range and immediate for herself, her family, and the world.  Mary’s response, though, is exemplary: she embraced her new reality and her new child.
     In this Advent season, let us remember and be grateful for the yes Mary gave to that sudden visitor who brought shocking news.  For Mary’s decision brought life to the world.  The child she bore and reared has changes our fates forever.  Perhaps the joy and gratitude we bring to the new arrivals in our world give us a starting point for loving Mary’s son. (The Surprise Child by James T. Keane)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: I have heard your call, my Lord, and respond with a yes that arises from the depth of my being.  I know that if I follow close to you, nothing shall be able to separate me from your love. Amen. A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God by Norman Shawchuck and Rueben P. Job)

Monday, December 19, 2016

growing within

Opening Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ,
     Thou Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, be born into our world.  Wherever there is war in this world, wherever there is pain, wherever there is loneliness, wherever there is no hope, come, thou long-expected one, with healing in thy wings.
     Holy Child, whom the shepherds and the kings and the dumb beasts adored, be born again.  Wherever there is boredom, wherever there is fear of failure, wherever there is temptation too strong to resist, wherever there is bitterness of heart, come, thou blessed one, with healing in thy wings.
     Saviour, be born in each of us who raises his face to thy face, not knowing fully who he is or who thou art, knowing only that thy love is beyond his knowing and that no other has the power to make him whole.  Come, Lord Jesus, to each who longs for thee even though he has forgotten thy name.  Come quickly.  Amen. (The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner)

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

Journal: What is God growing within you these days as a result?  How will you carry what God has conceived in you until the time it is to be born into the world?

Reflection: We can only dimly realize how glorious and how sweetly beautiful a temple of God Mary has been as she cradled God within her.  What can we say to describe the temple into which each of us will welcome him on Christmas Day?  We have seen many Advents come and go, laden for the most part, with broken resolutions and unfulfilled promises.  Year after year we have longed for Christmas and the Christ Child’s presence in the crib.  More especially, we have yearned daily for His advent into our hearts.  But yearnings and longings are futile unless they spur us on to action.
     If we truly desire a royal visit, we prepare a fitting reception for the expected guest.  So should it be with our desire to have Christ the King, the center of all hearts, come and dwell with us.  What preparation do we make for such a royal friend?  Is our heart like Mary’s—a lovely tabernacle fashioned from our earliest childhood and richly embellished over the years?  What have we done to beautify it in the past?  More pertinent still, what have we done this past year?  What has been our life of service, our life of prayer and sacrifice?  Can we rejoice in them as we eagerly expect Jesus to come, to be reborn, as it were in our souls?  Are our hearts truly hungry for Him?  If so, how shall we appease that hunger? ~Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, MM

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Lord, thank you for what you are doing within us during this time and this season.  May we take great care to nurture and attend to whatever it is that you are growing in us.  For your glory.  Amen. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

trust

Opening Prayer: O God, sometimes you ask us to do the impossible; you ask us to trust you even when things are beyond our understanding or comprehension.  Help us to have the courage and the faith to do so, to trust you even in the midst of the most chaotic and trying and difficult circumstances of our lives.  Amen. (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Journal: How would you have felt if you were Joseph?  What would you have been tempted to do?  What circumstances in your life right now are requiring you to trust God completely?

Reflection: I wonder how long you made Joseph wait in that agonizing tension before you told him your plan.  And what was it you were trying to accomplish within him in the midst of his struggling and wrestling?  Were you trying to teach him to pray?  Were you building his character? Were you testing his faith?  Were you trying to see if he would say yes to you regardless of the situation or circumstances?  Were you increasing his groaning, because you knew it would make the soil of his soul fertile and receptive to your coming?  Was the time of struggle designed to increase the depths of his gratitude once you finally told him the truth?  Was it to test his love for Mary, the mother of your Son?  Was it to test his love for you?  What was that awful, struggle-filled waiting meant to do in him?  And what is it meant to do in me?  How am I, like Joseph, looking at a seemingly no-win situation and having to trust you to somehow show up in the middle of it?  Where am I watching and waiting and trusting you to help me begin to make sense of it all? Where am I waiting desperately for you to arrive?  Come, Lord Jesus! (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Lord God, help us to trust you even in the midst of our waiting and uncertainty, that through it all we may remain certain of one thing—you!  Amen. (Watch and Wait by Jim Branch)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

signs of life

Opening Prayer: Direct me, O Lord, to recognize how your Spirit moves and to become responsive to your prompting.  Amen. (Sacred Space 2016)

Scripture: Luke 12:54-56

Journal: Where do you notice signs of the movement of God’s Spirit within or around you these days?

Reflection: For the child, newborn, is a natural spy.  Only his inherent limitations impede him from consuming all the clues of the universe fitted to his perceiving capacities.  Sent here with the mission of finding the meaning buried in matter, of locating the central intelligence, he goes about his business briskly, devouring every detail within his developing grasp.  He is devoted to discovery, resists sleep in order to consume more data.  Never again will he seek to unearth the treasure buried in the field with such single-mindedness.  He has to learn the world from scratch, but the task seems nothing but a joy.  Yet gradually, over time, something goes wrong.
     The spy slowly begins to forget his mission.  He spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the habits and customs, internalizing the thought patterns flawlessly, that somehow, gradually, imperceptibly, he becomes his cover.  He forgets what he’s about.  He goes to school, grows up.  He gets a job, collects his pay, buys a house, waters the lawn.  He settles down and settles in.  He wakes up each morning with the shape of his mission, what brought him here in the first place, grown hazier, like a dream that slides quickly away.  He frowns and makes an effort to remember.  But the phone rings or the baby cries, and he is distracted for the rest of the day.  Perhaps he forms a resolution to remember; still he seems helpless to keep the shape, the color of his mission clear in his mind.  Then one morning he wakes up and only yawns.  It must be there somewhere, buried in the brain cells, but at least superficially the memory is erased.  The spy goes native. (And the Tress Clap Their Hands by Virginia Stem Owens)

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Lord Jesus, help us to constantly be on the lookout for any and every sign of your coming.  For your kingdom is at hand, if we just have eyes to see it.  Amen.

Friday, December 16, 2016

god with us

Opening Prayer: Keep us alert, we pray, O Lord our God, as we await the advent of Christ your Son, so that when he comes and knocks he may find us watchful in prayer and exultant in his praise.  Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen. (A Collect for Advent on Creighton University Online Ministries)

Scripture: Isaiah 7:14

Journal: What does the name Immanuel mean to you right now?  How has God been with you recently?  How do you long for him to be with you?

Reflection: I flew to Houston over the weekend to speak at the Conspire Conference.  I stood on a stage looking out over a few hundred students in grades 6 through 12, telling them my story of having breast cancer in my 20s.
     I talked to them about what a dark season of life it was for me.  The chemo and radiation were difficult, but on top of that I also lost a good friend to cancer, I was out of work for seven months, while in my apartment building’s parking lot, my car was hit by a truck, and my boyfriend broke up with me.  After all of that, I ended up in the hospital with a raging lung infection and a good chance that I would die.
     On the nights I spent in the hospital, I’d lie awake and stare at the ceiling and wonder where God was.  “Do you see me?  Do you love me?  Do you care about what’s happening in my life?”  I prayed.  “And if you see me and love me and care about my life, why don’t you come down and make this all go away?”
     I told them how I eventually got better and moved from Connecticut to Oregon to start over.  And every Sunday, I’d go to church and pray for God to find me because I felt so lost.  For six months I prayed that same prayer, and then one Sunday, I realized that the love of God is higher, longer, wider, and deeper than anything that happens in this world.  And so not only was I found by God, but never—even for a single second—had I ever been lost.
     Around that time, I also met a Somali refugee woman and her girls on the train one afternoon.  I ended up getting involved with their family, writing a blog about the adventure of helping them adjust to life in America, and turning the blog into a book called The Invisible Girls so I could use the proceeds to start a college fund for the five Somali girls.
     I told the students how God worked everything for good—because I never would’ve been in Portland if my life on the East Coast hadn’t fallen apart.  And I never would’ve recognized the desperate look in the Somali woman’s eyes except that it was exactly the same look I’d had in my eyes when I landed in Portland after losing everything but my life.
     God had seemed absent, hiding in the shadows of painful circumstances.  But it turns out he was with me all the time, and was taking each horrible, painful detail and working it for good.
     At the close of the talk, I looked at the students and said, “I promise you that at some point in your life, something will happen that is difficult and painful.  Something that you don’t understand, that you don’t want, that you don’t like.  And in that moment, you’re going to think that God doesn’t love you, that he’s abandoned you, and forgotten all about you.
     “And some of you are there right now—you’ve lost someone you loved, or a relationship ended badly, or you’re getting bullied mercilessly.  And maybe it seems so bad that the best way out is to end your life.
     “But you are here tonight just to hear me tell you this: God.  Loves.  You.
     “He sees you, he cares about you, and even when you don’t feel him near you, He’s holding onto you every step of the way.  And he’s going to work this all out for good.”
     After I prayed for the students, I left the stage and the worship band began to play.  One of the organizers met me backstage and led me to a table in the lobby where I was going to do a book signing.
     When the kids were dismissed from the session, they got in line to buy a copy of The Invisible Girls and get it signed.  A small girl, who was barely four feet tall, waited in the line until it was her turn to come up to the table.  “I don’t have any money to buy your book,” she said quietly.  “But could you sign my name tag?”
     One of the youth leaders ran and grabbed a permanent marker, and I signed her laminated name tag.  Several other kids saw what was going on, and came over to get their name tags signed, too.  Others came over and asked to take a picture with me.
     After twenty minutes, everyone had come through the line, and the lobby emptied as the kids went to their next session.
     And then an overweight teenage boy with thick glasses came up to the table clutching a copy of my book to his chest.  He handed it to me to sign, which I did, and then gave it back to him.  Instead of walking away, he stood there in front of me without saying anything, and tears welled up in his eyes.
     Finally, he broke the silence.  “Would it be okay if you hugged me?” he asked.     
     I walked around the table and held my arms out.  He wrapped his arms around my waist and clung to me.
     “God sees you, God loves you, God cares about you,” I whispered.  And I could feel his shoulders shaking as he cried.
     During Advent, I’ve been thinking a lot about Immanuel, God with us.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about how, as his followers, we get to live out the incarnation for each other.  We get to be the tangible presence of Jesus in this world—a presence that shines light and makes peace and whispers love.
     We get to be his feet that walk the extra mile; his eyes that look on even the most messy, marginalized people with love; and his arms that wrap around self-conscious, bullied, lonely teenage boys.
     We get to whisper into the aching ears of this world, “God sees you.  God loves you.  God cares about you.  Yes—even you.” ~Sarah Thebarge, from Sojourners, December 2013

Prayer

Closing Prayer: Thank you, O God, that you are indeed with us, whether we can sense it or not.  Thank you that you see us, that you love us, and that you care about us.  Thank you that you are Immanuel.  Amen.