“Thin Places”

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“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’”—Genesis 28: 16

In Jacob’s dream he sees a stairway to heaven with angels ascending and descending it. He named the place Bethel, “the place of God.” The ancient Celts called such spots “thin places,” where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.

Thin places can be famous holy spots such as the Isle of Iona or the Cathedral de Notre Dame, but more often than not they are ordinary places, such as Bethel, or a dusty road on the way to Damascus.

You can search for thin places, but, as with Jacob, it is more likely that they will find you.

Such unexpected encounters with the Holy seem to happen in times of crisis: Jacob running away from home, Saul on his way to persecute the church.

Is it the place itself that allows for these glimpses of the advent of God? Or is it some special state of mind and heart? Either way there are times and places when the ordinarily reliable distinction between heaven and earth gets erased.

Even if we see no burning bush or ladder to heaven, nor hear the voice of Jesus, we are no less certain that we have come upon a thin place, and can say, as Jacob did, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”

Prayer: Keep us alive and alert, O God, in all places and times, that we may not miss the moments of your visitation.

(This is my daily devotional for today from “Wonder,” the United Church of Christ’s 2015 Advent Devotional booklet. Photo meme by Pilgrim Press)

Preparing for Christmas with a prayer from Karl Barth

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On this Fourth Sunday of Advent my pastor picked this prayer from Karl Barth as part of the prayers of the people for this morning. Barth wrote it in the middle of the last century, but it struck me as eerily contemporary. It helped me sort out some of what I need to do to prepare for Christmas, and so in that spirit, I share it with you:

Lord, our God and Father, give to many, to all, and to us as well, that we may celebrate Christmas like this: that in complete thankfulness, utter humility and then complete joy and confidence we may come to the One whom you have sent, and in whom you yourself have come to us. Clean out the many things in us that now that the hour has come have become impossible for us, can no longer belong to us, may, must, and will fall away from us, by virtue of your Son, our Lord and Savior, entering into our midst and creating order.

Have mercy on all of those who either do not yet or do not fully know you and your kingdom, who perhaps once knew everything and have either forgotten, misunderstood or even denied it! Have mercy on all of humankind, who today are once again especially plagued, threatened and haunted by so much foolishness. Enlighten the thoughts of those in both the East and the West, the South and the North who are in power and who, as appears to be the case, are today in complete confusion and despair. Give the rulers and representatives of the people, the judges, teachers, and bureaucrats, give even the media in our homeland the insight and sobriety that are necessary for their responsible work. Place the right, necessary and helpful words on the lips of those who have to preach during this Christmas Season, and open then also the ears and hearts of those who hear them. Comfort and encourage those who are sick, both in body and spirit, in hospitals, as well as prisoners, and those who are distressed, abandoned or despairing. Help them with what alone can truly help them and all of us: the clarity of your Word and the quiet work of your Holy Spirit.

We thank you that we are permitted to know that we do not pray and will never pray to you in vain. We thank you that you have let your light rise, that it shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will not overcome it. We thank you that you are our God and that we may be called your people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

(Photo: R. L. Floyd, 2015)

“He will come like child.” Rowan Williams’ “Advent Calendar”

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I have long been an admirer of the estimable Rowan Williams, the 104th archbishop of Canterbury, since the time I saw him give an awkward, brilliant, and humble paper in 1989 in Oxford. Since then I have read with profit his thoughtful theological books and essays. But I just learned that he also has written poetry. I came across this fine Advent poem today. It is from his first collection of poems: After Silent Centuries (Oxford, 1994), and is now available in The Poems of Rowan Williams’ (Oxford, 2002 and Grand Rapids MI, 2004).

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

© Rowan Williams

(Photo by R. L. Floyd, 2015, “Autumn leaf after the rainstorm,” Ashuwillticook  Rail Trail, Lanesborough, MA.)

“Lost in Wonder, Love, and Praise”

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“Finish, then, Thy new creation!”

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”— Romans 8: 22-23

The Advent hope recognizes that there is something unfinished about God’s creation. In today’s passage Paul employs the metaphor of childbirth, the “whole creation groaning in labor pains,” to describe the ongoing process of creation.

Our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith testifies to the two calls of God, the original creation (‘God calls the worlds into being”), and the new creation in Jesus Christ (“God calls us into the church”).

It is humbling to imagine that we have some part to play in the completion of God’s work, in our lives, in our communities, and on this earth we share with all God’s other creatures.

The Advent hope invites us to actively share in the reconciling, restoring, healing and saving activity of the living God. Such hope points to a promised future when the whole creation will finally be completed, a vision captured by the last verse of the great Charles Wesley hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling:”

“Finish, then, Thy new creation;

Pure and spotless let us be.

Let us see Thy great salvation

Perfectly restored in Thee;

Changed from glory into glory,

Till in Heav’n we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee,

Lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Prayer: O Creator God, let your work be our work, as we long for the promised day when you will bring it to completion, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

(This is my devotional for today from “Wonder” the 2015 Advent Devotional from the United Church of Christ’s Stillspeaking Writers’ Group. Photo: The Pilgrim Press, 2015)

 

Ruminations on Advent

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“There is something beautiful and mysterious about Advent, but there is, at the same time, something unsettling, darkly anxious, almost threatening about it. The Advent mood is hard to put into words. It is often captured better by its hymns, which are often dark and brooding, sung in a minor key.

The scripture lessons for Advent set the tone with their continued prophetic calls for repentance, the dire warnings to “wait and watch,” the urgency of preparation for what is coming. We hear about those who are unprepared for God, tenants who are surprised by the sudden appearance of their long-absent landlord, sleepy bridesmaids waiting with their empty oil-lamps for the bridegroom to come.” (Excerpt from “Rejoice! Rejoice! A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent”)

Over the years I have posted many of my Advent rumination and reflections. I have gathered up some of them here:

The Christmas Tree in the Passing Lane

“A Chorus of Trees” (Video)

Anticipation: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

Rejoice! Rejoice! A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

And here is the hymn I wrote for Advent in 2000, after 9/11:

“In Such Sad Times We Look Ahead” A Hymn for Advent

(Photo by R.L. Floyd, 2014. The dog is Onyx, our grand-dog.)

“A Chorus of Trees”

“Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming” –Psalm 96: 12, 13.

“What are these excitable trees singing and clapping about? They are celebrating the coming of God, a coming worth getting excited about, full of promise for the restoration, judging, cleansing and healing of all things. And this coming will not be only for people and nations, but for all that belongs to the Creator, “the whole earth and everything in it. Which means that our Advent hope for the coming of God is not a private “spiritual” matter, but a hope of quite cosmic proportions.” (From “Tear Open the Heavens” Advent Devotion 2014. The United Church of Christ)

This devotional of mine for December 22  from the UCC Advent Devotionals was made into a very moving YOUTUBE video. Thanks to Katherine Schofield for this. I tried to put the eschatology back into Advent, and I think she captured it.

The Christmas Tree in the Passing Lane: A Reflection on Advent

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On Saturday we drove home from my brother’s house in Maine where we had celebrated Thanksgiving with our family, or at least the part of it that could make it this year.

It was a calm and friendly few days. We ate some turkey and tucked into various lovely pies. There were numerous board games that lasted into the wee hours, and, yes (I won’t deny it) we watched a football game or two.

It had snowed enough during Wednesday’s storm that we were able to do some good snowshoeing on Friday at a local forest preserve. All in all, it was a good Thanksgiving.

I was especially aware that this year we had much to be thankful for. Somehow “the simple fact of being together made the time holy.” (From my Daily Devotional for Thanksgiving, to read it all go here.)

I often find the season from Thanksgiving to the New Year to be a wistful and bittersweet time. When I was a young minister I became aware what a sad time it was for many of my older congregants, who remembered happier, healthier times, when they and their families were young.

I understand that better now, as my own children are grown, and many of the original participants in my early holiday memories are gone.

The church is often wiser than we are in how it marks the time. A good example of this is the season of Advent, which captures the mood of the darkening days with its texts of waiting and hoping and its hymns in minor keys.

The expectation that the holidays will be better and brighter than our ordinary time can be a burden that weighs us down. I think some of the excessive consumerism we see this time of year is our attempt to keep the long dark days at bay. But there are some things money can’t buy, even at full price, such as health and wholeness, faith, hope and love.

On the way home the day was sunny with a high blue sky, and the traffic on the Maine Turnpike wasn’t nearly as heavy as on the way up in the storm.

As we crossed the river into New Hampshire, there was a freshly cut Christmas tree in the middle of the left-hand lane that had fallen off the roof of someone’s car. It made me suddenly sad, December sad. It must be time for Advent, I thought, and the next day it was.

Good, I thought, I need a little Advent.

 

(Photo by R. L. Floyd. “Black Brook Preserve, Windham Maine Land Trust.”)