“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)

“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.”)

Funny poem: “’Twas the Day after Christmas”

This piece of seasonal light verse comes from the keyboard of Janet Batchler, the creative gal behind the now famous Church History in Four Minutes video.  Janet’s terrific blog is Quoth the Maven (Now sadly gone.)  Her poem, with only slight exaggeration  (we no longer have a dog), describes my house about now.  How about yours?

‘TWAS THE DAY AFTER CHRISTMAS

‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house
All the fam’ly was sleeping, yes, even my spouse.
The stockings were tossed by the chimney with flair
Some turned inside out, to make sure nothing’s there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
Nintendo DSes tucked under their heads;
And I in my bathrobe, MacBook on my lap,
Was happy to know there were no gifts to wrap.

When out from the kitchen there rose such a clatter,
I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.
I waded my way ‘cross a floor filled with trash
To a kitchen heaped high from our Christmas Eve bash.

The sun through the window, it gave quite a glow:
(Los Angeles Christmas: We never have snow),
It shone on the remains of the Christmas day cheer,
The leftover cheese ball, the dregs of the beer.
The un-put-away brownies as hard as a fossil,
And o’er on the stove, it shone down on the wassail.

I blinked as the sun blasted straight to my eye
And just in time glimpsed a brown streak passing by.
Four-footed and furry and dragging a ham,
Dodging around me and trying to scram.
And as he ran off with a peppermint cluster
I knew in a moment, it was my dog Buster.

More rapid than eagles he streaked ‘cross the floor
Buster grabbed what he wanted, and came back for more:
More cheesecake, more truffles, more bagels and lox,
More chocolate chip cookies, more scotch on the rocks.
He smashed and he scrambled, bumped into the wall,
Then dashed away, dashed away, dashed away all.

“I should have cleaned up when the guests said good-bye,”
I moaned to myself with a pretty big sigh.
After two days of feasting, the kitchen looked grubby
I scrounged in the sink, tried to dig up the scrubby–

I searched quite in vain for a halfway clean towel
When out from the living room came quite a howl.
I set down the saucepan all caked thick with goo,
The glaze for the ham which had now turned to glue.

I skipped to the living room, limber of foot
And inched past the fireplace, dripping with soot.
Unraveling ribbons clung fast to my shin
As I looked round the post-Christmas scene with chagrin.

A mountain of presents all covered the floor
They looked so appealing when bought at the store.
Now gift wrap was ripped and the tissue was crumpled,
The new shoes abandoned, the new tank tops rumpled.

I picked my way round all the presents caloric,
The baskets of chocolate to make me euphoric,
Strange foods so exotic that no one would try it
(And don’t my friends know, New Year’s Day starts the diet?)

And just then I heard from the top of the spruce
The pitiful cry of a dog on the loose
I lifted my eyes from amidst the debris —
Old Buster had climbed to the top of the tree.

The angel crashed down as the Christmas tree swayed,
The ornaments flew in a sparkling cascade–
The puppy leapt on me, I felt his claws rip,
And then right behind, the tree started to tip–

The lights all exploded as down the tree crashed–
The pine needles shredded, the presents were smashed–
And I said as I landed on top of the pup,
“Happy Christmas to all– Someone else can clean up!”

(Janet Batchler, Quoth the Maven, December 26, 2009)

“So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

 

“Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

(William Shakespeare,  Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1)