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Sunday, November 30

Today’s Readings: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

As we head into this Christmas season, many Americans have been seduced by the notion that if only they get that perfect Christmas gift, all of their problems will be solved. “If I can get that trip to Hawaii…”, “If only I can get that flat screen television set…”, “If only I can get the latest Blackberry...” The lists go on and on. The long Christmas wish list that many of us carry with us only reinforces the notion that it is absolutely impossible to feel content with what we currently have. Just as we are about to succumb to this notion, along comes Paul’s words to us today from his first letter to the Corinthians that blow that sense of longing right out of the water. In the letter, Paul writes: “… you don’t need a thing, you’ve got it all! All God’s gifts are right in front of you as you wait expectantly for our Master Jesus to arrive on the scene for the Finale” (1 Corinthians 1:7 from The Message). What a great message for us to hear on this first Sunday of Advent! Today, as you officially start your journey toward Christmas, take time to be thankful – not for what you hope to receive in 26 days, but for what you’ve got today! Til next time…

Saturday, November 29

Today’s Readings: Psalm 123; Micah 7:11-20; Luke 21:5-19; Romans 8:18-25; Psalm 132

Today’s words from Romans hit particularly close to home for two reasons. The first reason might be obvious for some - for during this season of Advent leading up to Christmas, we Christians are particularly tuned in to the notion of waiting for something better. That part is pretty straightforward. The second reason the readings from Romans hit home is probably much less obvious. You see someone who I’ve been in ministry with for over the past year entered into hospice care last Monday evening. Consequently, I’ve been at the hospice nearly every day this week. As I sit with his loving family during this time of transition, I couldn’t help but think of today’s words from Romans: “All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs,” Paul wrote. “But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting” (Romans 8:22-24 from The Message). During this season of Advent, Paul’s words remind me that things aren’t always the way they appear at first glance. Things that we label as hardships or losses are often agents of transformation and new life. We tend to forget just how fraught the Christmas story was with hardships at every turn (i.e. Mary & Joseph’s displacement due to the census, the arduous journey to Bethlehem, the inability to find safe and sanitary lodging, and the birth in a stable). If you are experiencing difficulties this holiday season, remember Paul’s words to us from Romans that invite us to think about the pain as birth pangs. Take some measure of peace in knowing those birth pangs may ultimately “enlarge” you in ways you never imagined if you let them. Til next time…

Friday, November 28

Today’s Readings: Psalm 98; Isaiah 24:14-23; Mark 13:24-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:7-12; Psalm 125

This Black Friday marks the official (or should I say commercial) beginning to the Christmas shopping season. For many, it is a day of celebration as millions of Americans will spend time reveling in joy as they bask in the warmth of family, friends, and fun. In many ways the spirit of the day reminds me of the mood captured in the first three verses of today’s reading from Isaiah. But not everyone experiences the kick off to the Christmas season in quite the same way. Study after study shows the increase in the rates of both incidents of depression and suicide attempts during the holidays. This feeling was also captured in today’s passage from Isaiah as the prophet responded to the joyous opening words by saying, “That’s all well and good for somebody, but all I can see is doom, doom, and more doom” (Isaiah 24:16 from The Message). So how can we negotiate our way through the roller coaster that many of us know as the Christmas season? We can do that by acknowledging the role the season of Advent plays in our spiritual lives. You see Advent is the season leading up to Christmas that helps us prepare for the coming of the Christ-child on Christmas Day. It’s a time that creates room for us to acknowledge both the joyous times of anticipation as well as the darker times when we come to terms with the hard work that needs to be done in order to create room in our hearts for the coming Christ-child. In other words, Advent helps us see the ups-and-downs of the season not as a frivolous roller coaster of emotions, but rather as an essential process of house-cleaning that will make our experience of Christmas much more meaningful. This Advent season may we come to peace with the fullness of our emotional and spiritual responses and see those responses for what they are: necessarily parts of the process we go through in order to receive the Christ-child. Til next time…

Thursday, November 27

Today’s Readings: Psalm 76; Zephaniah 3:1-13; Mark 13:17-23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-6; Psalm 121

Last Sunday evening, I watched the film “What Would Jesus Buy?” with a group of people from the church I serve. The film showed how consumerism has overtaken Christmas and allowed us to lose sight of what the holiday is really about. The challenge of the central figure in the film – a fictional character named Reverend Billy - was to help others get back to the basics and re-claim the essence of what the holiday is really about. The storyline of the film reminded me a great deal of today’s words from Zephaniah – for in that passage the prophet moved from words of judgment and wrath directed against those who missed the point to words that established a hopeful vision for the re-establishment of a spiritually grounded community. What struck me about the words from Zephaniah was how the prophet raised the notion that sometimes people have to live through difficult times that serve as a type of sorting out process in order to get things back on track. “I’ve gotten rid of your arrogant leaders,” the prophet quotes God as saying. “No more pious strutting on my holy hill.” (Zephaniah 3:11 from The Message). Once that sorting out process occurred, God promised: “I’ll leave a core of people among you who are poor in spirit – what’s left of Israel that’s really Israel. They make their home in God” (Zephaniah 3:12 from The Message). Both the film and the words from Zephaniah challenge me to remember that sometimes – in order to find our way – we have to lose it for awhile. On this Thanksgiving Day, when it’s easy to give thanks for those things in our lives that are obvious sources of joy and celebration, I would ask you to do something much more challenging: stop and give thanks for those difficult times in your life that rocked your world –times when you thought you had lost your way. For often it is through those difficult moments that we are able to recognize the need to be led “home in God” and then arrive there with a newfound sense joy and appreciation. Til next time…

Wednesday, November 26

Today’s Readings: Psalm 147; Obadiah 1:15-21; Mark 13:9-16; Philippians 3:17-21; Psalm 94

When I was flying back from my vacation in Philadelphia last week, I grabbed a book in one of the airport bookstores to read during the 3 ½ hour flight. The title of the book caught my eye almost immediately; its title was “What Americans Really Believe”, and it was written by Rodney Stark. While the author and I came from very different theological positions, I did enjoy reading sorting through some of his data regarding the beliefs of Americans. I found one of his conclusions particularly interesting. In examining Christian faith communities that thrived, Rodney found they shared a common characteristic: they were what he called high contrast faith communities. What Stark meant by this is that thriving faith communities presented a faith that was at odds with the values of the larger American culture around them. Faith communities that had either plateaued or were declining, on the other hand, were faith communities that went the extra mile to seamlessly “fit in” with the larger culture around them. In other words, these were faith communities that did everything possible to make the faith as easy as possible. Paul touched on this theme when he wrote to individuals at Philippi and said: “I’ve warned you many times; sadly, I’m having to do it again. All they want is easy street. They hate Christ’s Cross. But easy street is a dead-end street. Those who live their make their bellies their gods; belches their praise; all they can think of is their appetites” (Philippians 3:18-19 from The Message). I can certainly understand the temptation to live a low-contrast life where our faith mirrors the values of the larger culture around us. Such an approach makes it easier to fit in with those around us. But at what cost do we fit in? Today I would invite you to take a personal inventory of your life. Do you lead a low contrast life, or a high contrast life? If you find the results of your personal inventory unsettling, use your time during this upcoming season of Advent to make some adjustments and ratchet up your level of contrast. While such an adjustment may take some work, you’ll be amazed at the way such efforts enhance your spiritual life. Til next time…

Tuesday, November 25

Today’s Readings: Psalm 89:1-51; Nahum 1:1-13; Mark 13:1-8; Ephesians 3:8-19

About 18 months ago, I started focusing my energies on helping people identify the spiritual gifts with which they had been blessed. I did this using a short assessment found on the website for the United Methodist Church. In case you are interested in taking the assessment yourself, you can find it at: Spiritual Gifts Inventory. The assessment identifies the spiritual gifts with which an individual has been bestowed. Out of all the spiritual gifts included in the assessment, the one that most intrigued me was the gift of miracles. As the authors of the assessment pointed out: “The gift of miracles is not about performing miracles…” Instead, it is “about living in the miraculous reality of God’s creation. Those gifted with miracles never doubt the power and presence of God in creation, and are able to help others see and believe in God’s power.” I was reminded of this spiritual gift as I read today’s passage from Ephesians where Paul wrote: “My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along” (Ephesians 3:9 from The Message). In so many ways, that sentence from Paul captures a piece of the call that we all share as Christians – to help people (including ourselves) find God in the midst of our every day lives. For some who find themselves bored by the routines of their daily lives, it might at first seem impossible to find God’s miraculous presence in their everyday lives. If you’re among this group, I would encourage you to slow down and find time to start carefully observing things around you that you often overlook – the gorgeous sunrise, a spontaneous hug from a loved one, an unexpected call from someone you didn’t expect to hear from… The list of ‘miraculous’ things could go on and on. Instead of doing what you normally do - take these things for granted - stop and give thanks for the ways in which these miracles help you feel God’s presence in your life. Til next time…

Monday, November 24

Today’s Readings: Psalm 87; Joel 3:1-2, 9-17; Matthew 22:41-46; Ephesians 1:16-23; Psalm 139

There are many aspects of our faith that present enormous challenges for most people. Some of these aspects include how to understand why bad things happen to good people, how to wrap your mind around theological constructs like the Trinity, and how articulate your understanding of Scripture. Over the years I’ve found that most of these challenges stem from the same source: our insistence on making God understandable. I don’t wrestle with many of the questions that seem to consume others because I don’t buy into the notion that God is understandable. In fact, my theology is rooted in the belief that God transcends any and all boxes we try to stuff God into – including reason. As a result, I have a much easier time accepting the mystery that I believe is an essential component to our faith. In those instances where I do forget the futility of trying to neatly define spiritual things, I can always turn to today’s encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees in the reading from Matthew. In that encounter, the Pharisees came face to face with the limits of their understanding. They reached a point where they were totally unequipped to answer the Jesus’ questions. At that critical juncture in their faith journey, the Pharisees could have acknowledged the limits of their approach and opened themselves to a truth greater than their minds. Instead, they took the easy way out and simply shut down. I can read the story and do my best to avoid making the same mistake. All of this makes me wonder where are you at in your exploration of God? Is your exploration driven by the need to make sense out of the incomprehensible; or is your exploration of God grounded in both a sense of awareness of your limits and an appreciation for the limitless nature of God as revealed through Christ? Til next time…