My Top Ten Posts from 2017

Once again, as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it has been my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year the idea of perseverance seems to be the theme. In the light of God’s unending faithfulness and lovingkindness let us all live in hope in 2018. Continue reading

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“The Wondrous Gift is Given”

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” —Isaiah 9:6

Christmas gift giving should be a simple matter, but often isn’t. What gift to give? What gift will bring the person joy? How much should I spend? Continue reading

December “Sadness and Silences”

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An important writing mentor of mine was my friend and colleague the late Arnold Kenseth. Here are a reflection and a prayer of his for Advent. For more about this remarkable writer, poet and minister see my  post “Arnold Kenseth: A New England Poet of the Sacred.” Continue reading

“Wolves and Lambs” Devotionals for Advent 2016

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The United Church of Christ 2016 Advent Devotional, “Wolves and Lambs,” from The Stillspeaking Writers’ Group is now available. I have two devotionals in it.

Why “Wolves and Lambs”? Here’s a snippet by Quinn G. Caldwell from the Introduction:

We’re calling this year’s Advent Devotional “Wolves and Lambs” because we think that the image of a wolf and a lamb lying down together should be comforting, yes, even sweet.

But it should also be deeply unnerving.

As the first Christmas was. As this one will be, if Isaiah and God—and we—have anything to say about it.

You can order it here. You can see a sample preview here. Order soon. They only print so many and some years they have run out.

“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)

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.”)

“Anticipation”: A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Sandy“There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory.” (Luke 21:25-36)

In this passage the world is being shaken loose. It occurs to me that the upheavals described in apocalyptic texts like this one are very much like the language of creation only in reverse. In the first chapter of Genesis God calls things into being one after the other and pronounces them good. The sun and moon, the earth and waters, and all the living things are summoned into life by God’s creative Word. A world takes shape.

But in our Gospel today that world is shaken to its foundations. The secure, predictable world we have come to know and rely upon is threatened and can no longer be relied upon.  The primordial chaos that the original creation turned back, now threatens to break loose upon the world. Then at the very climax of the distress the Son of Man appears in power and glory.

Those early Christians who heard these words in the New Testament period no doubt heard them as reassuring words. Words that expressed the faith that although the world around them was up for grabs and insecure Christ was still in charge and coming soon.

Isaac Watts expresses the mood of this passage in this hymn:

“Deep are his counsels, and unknown,
But grace and truth support his throne;
Through gloomy clouds his ways surround,
Justice is their eternal ground.

In robes of judgement, lo! he comes,
Shakes the wide earth and cleaves the tombs;
Before him burns devouring fire;
the mountains melt, the seas retire.”

Although we may not share the world view of first century Christians let me suggest that their description of a world where everything is being shaken loose can speak to our own sense of insecurity in a world whose foundations are shaken.

How many of us have felt the secure world we knew was being shaken to its foundations?  Our life is a perpetual series of change. We move, we gain or lose a job, we marry,  have a child, someone we love gets sick or dies, a relationship ends, things change.  In truth we live among flux and change all the time. It is not always cataclysmic change, but change nevertheless.

Last spring I was coming back from my Princeton program and I stopped in Bergen County, New Jersey to visit the little town I grew up in. The small old  church looked very much the same as when I left over forty years ago, but much else had changed. The house I grew up with was torn down shortly after I left, but there were also new roads and developments, and as I drove around I got disoriented sometimes by the changes. The town that exists in my own mind and the town that exists now bear some resemblance, but are not quite the same town, just as I am not the eighteen year old who left that town so many years ago.

There was an obituary this week for someone who worked at The Busy Bee, a Pittsfield restaurant that I have heard about, but was long gone even when I got here in 1982, displaced by the misguided urban renewal of the nineteen sixties, the same plan that took away the much missed train station on Depot Street. Folksinger Dave Mallet sings a song that laments these losses:

“I  miss Main Street, where everyone knew you by name,
I miss Main Street, O how this little town change.
It’s all part of progress, changing the old, for the new.
I miss Main Street, What in the world is this world coming to?”

The point is that the security of the familiar is an illusion of time, and in time we eventually all come to know the feeling of a world that no longer feels secure.

Advent invites us to consider what there is of abiding security in the face of the shaking of the foundations. What can be counted on in a world where everything is shaken loose? Listen to the witness of Psalm 46:

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

We need such a word of hope and reassurance. It is too easy sometimes for us  to become fearful and insecure in the face of the world’s changes. Things will change, of that we can be sure, although the changes are often as unpredictable as the results of the recent election.

There was a good slogan on the sign board at Zion’s Lutheran Church this past week. It said:  “Election results: God Reigns!” That is just right. isn’t it?

Advent reminds us that God comes to us not only at the end of time, but also from time to time, in gentle visitations that we may miss for our preoccupation with making a secure world apart from him.

The Advent word is not just a word of reassurance, but also a word of judgement, a word of challenge and an invitation to change. There are things about all of us that need shaking to the foundations, and surely things in our society that could well be shaken loose to make the world a more just and Godly place.

Our attempts to find security can be idols. There are idols of race and clan and class that tempt us to find security there. There can be a fearful clinging to a secure past which is not open to the new thing that God is doing in our midst.

A world where the solidities we have counted on are shaken loose offers us the opportunity for new life, new hope, and new faith in the God who comes to meet us even as the foundations are shaking.

The language of Advent is the language of anticipation for God’s new future. It is not a future we can make for ourselves. It may be something we can not readily see or even imagine. Through thick and thin, through trying times and good times,  faith waits and watches, alert for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

(I preached this sermon on December 3, 2000 at the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, Massachusetts)