An Advent Moment

The world has gone white around me, and the road has disappeared. I stand in the deep chill of first-light and feel the stirring of childlike wonder. The cold seeps through my long sleep-shirt and ice crystals tease my bare feet, but I cannot move. This winter vista is unspeakably beautiful.

Somewhere in the profound silence, I almost hear a familiar voice. “What are you doing out there? Get in this house this instant!” It is not God’s voice, or an angels. It is an echo of my mother, rising from the archives of my soul. It shakes me and I listen. People ought not venture into the snow in thin cotton. Even hard headed ancient children need protection from the elements. So in I go.

Light two candles, and stand in the circle of light.

I glance at the weather alerts. I read “SNOW WILL QUICKLY ACCUMULATE ON ROADWAYS, MAKING FOR INCREASINGLY HAZARDOUS TRAVEL. ALL STORM PREPARATIONS SHOULD BE COMPLETE. TRAVEL IS CONSIDERED UNWISE FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.” These are wise words, and I will listen to them. I will not run the circuit today. I advise those in my care to shelter in place and worship in the warmth of their own homes. God has built a cathedral of ice crystals all around us. Let us create sanctuary where we are.

Lord, Your will is perfect. Send your presence into our houses, and remind us that we are The Church where we stand. Scattered or gathered, we are one Body of Christ on Earth. Help us to be still, and know.

Peace of Christ to you where you shelter. Peace to those whose shelter is scant and inadequate. God send us all what we need in the midst of this settling, gathering us under His wings of provision. Let us not resist the hush of the moment. It will do us good to lay down our busyness and just bask in the silence and stillness of holy presence.

Light two candles, and stand in the circle of light. Quiet every anxious thought. Drink in the peace of Christ, and simply worship the One who has sent His word and changed the face of the world overnight.

He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly.
He gives snow like wool;
he scatters frost like ashes.
He hurls down hail like crumbs—
who can stand before his cold?
He sends out his word, and melts them;
he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.

Psalm 147:15-18 (NRSVCE)

Circuit Preachers and Snow

As a child, I attended church regularly, despite the weather. Initially, my family rode the church bus, and the ride was sometimes an adventure. I recall once, when the roads were particularly icy, we started down the hill toward the meeting-house, but could not stop when the time came. Despite the driver’s best effort, we slid right past the church, though the intersections beyond it, and settled in the flat area a few blocks down. Oddly, I do not recall how (or whether) we made it back to the church that Sunday. I just remember the wild ride.

We moved our membership to the church across the street from our house, and simply walked to services during my adolescent years. I can remember walking up that long, steep hill in snow up to my thighs – a delightful process for a girl reared in a holiness church that required female members to wear skirts rather than trousers. It was tedious, and meant that we allowed extra time on snowy Sunday mornings, but we had the time to spare, so it never occurred to us to cancel services. Those who could come came, and those who could not worshiped at home.

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Our pastor lived in the house across the road, nestled halfway (more or less) between our house and the meeting-house. He and his wife walked to services, too, though their walk was far more convenient than ours. I can still see him clearing the path to the church with his snow shovel, meeting the church volunteers half-way on the concrete walk that ran from the church to the parsonage. 

When I answered the call to pastoral ministry, this is the vision that I had. I wanted to live in a parsonage beside a meeting-house and be right there for those in need who wandered in. It never occurred to me to run from the public scrutiny facing pastoral ministers. I thought that was the idea. Living the faith boldly and transparently was my goal. Fish-bowl evangelism didn’t frighten me.

Circuit preaching is another thing entirely. My Sunday mornings begin very early. I rise, center myself in prayer, bathe, dress and drink a protein shake before heading out to my first appointed preaching site.

  • It is a fifteen minute drive to the first site in the best conditions, if I mind the speed limits. I always arrive early and spend time with the people before service begins. Starting at 8:45, I conduct a service that is designed to flow with precise timing and end just in time to put me on the road toward my second site, some 27 minutes away in optimal conditions.
  • I repeat the service at the second site (starting at 10:15) with a set of modifications in the order that match that congregation’s worship preferences. The timing is different, but the total time is identical. When I am done, I offer a pastoral blessing and dash off to my third meeting-house, just 15 minutes away.
  • The third site is different in that our worship leader has started the service in my absence. I join this service at about 11:30, roughly half way through. It is an interesting twist on preaching, this business of bursting through the door into the pulpit with little or no building toward the proclamation. I assume the pulpit, greet the people, and launch into the message for the day. This is the only service that sometimes goes overtime, because this is the only service that can be extended without cheating the next congregation. I do not apologize for giving them an extra minute or ten. After all, I am spending only half the time with them that I do with the others. 
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As you can see, timing is a major consideration. I find it interesting that I never took a single course on timing during my preparation for pastoral ministry. Absolutely all of my preparation was geared toward the station church experience. Circuit riding is a skill that is learned on the fly. Literally.

I would like to think that I am good at it. I know I give it best effort. Still, when the snow falls, I cringe. No one drives well enough to fly along icy roads on a precise timeline. I would need a magic sleigh and eight reindeer to do this act flawlessly in deep winter weather. 

I cannot allow extra time, because all of the time is precisely scripted. I cannot slow down. I cannot reschedule. I can go or not go. I can call the people out on the roads or urge them to worship in place. I don’t want to let anyone down, but I have had quite enough wild rides sliding past the church and through unpredictable traffic in this life. 

This is the relationship between the circuit preacher and snow. It is a less than friendly one. I am thinking about this relationship this morning as I look at our weather projections for tomorrow. I have a sermon ready that I have labored over. My church clothes are laid out, and my children’s sermon handouts are in my bag by the kitchen door. I am ready, but the weatherman says snow overnight and into tomorrow evening. 

How I wish I could just walk out my door and up the hill to preach. 

The prudent see danger and take refuge,
but the simple keep going and pay the penalty.

Proverbs 27:12 (NIV)

Empty Chairs

It was many years ago, and I was just a teenager. I was active in my congregation’s youth group. For the very first time, I had been given the female lead in the annual Christmas play.

I went fling down the hill and across the street from the church to tell my grandfather. He would be so excited! We had often talked about my dream of presenting the Gospel in drama. I was at the bottom of the hill, a few steps from the porch when I remembered…

The mind can be so generous with forgetfulness. The loss of a loved one to death is tucked away in a hidden place so that it does not continually chaff the conscious mind. But those sudden re-awakenings to the loss can be devastating. My Grandfather’s rocking chair was empty. 

This morning, as I count the empty chairs around the table of my heart, the number is crushing. My precious grandfather, both grandmothers, both my parents, my mother-in-law and fathers-in-law, an assortment of aunts and uncles, and my elder brother. I have a sister-in-law there who was truly a sister to me in every way but blood. I have an unborn child there, and an unborn grandchild. 

Faith reminds me that these chairs, though empty, are not genuine losses in any real sense of the word. Life goes on, and those who have left their accustomed places here with me are alive and well, but elsewhere. When the weight of their absence threatens me, I remember my Lord’s words:

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?”

John 11:25-26 (NLT)

I hear His gentle voice asking “Do you believe this, RuthAnne?” 

Lord, You know I believe you! But it gets lonely here sometimes. I am far from my birth family, far from my children and their children. I am farther, still, from those whose chairs stand empty. Life is sometimes so solitary. I can feel the cold of it in my bones.

Healing can be found on lonely roads. I am leaning into that truth this morning. Looking past the empty chairs, I see the promise of a glorious reunion. They are not the ones who are missing from the table. I am. They are home. I am not. I have some miles to go, and I would not hurry along the road. There is much to do, and I must let faith soothe my soul so that my mind, my hands and my feet can return to the work before me. 

This morning, I pray for those who grieve. God grant us all the comfort of our faith. Jesus is whispering “Do you believe this?” Yes, Lord, yes! We believe. Help our unbelief…

I would not hurry along the road. 

The Good Shepherd

A short video caught my attention early this week. It was a group of folk touring a farm where sheep were tended. In the video, people were invited to walk to the fence and call to the sheep. As they did, one by one, the sheep paid little attention. They continued to graze, ,wandering in the field, seldom even looking in the direction of the folk who were calling to them.

Finally, the shepherd stepped up to the fence. The instant he called to the sheep, their heads came up and they focused in his direction. By his third word, they were skipping toward him excitedly. They leaped and bounded, thrilled to hear the voice they associated with food, protection and care.

When the shepherd entered the enclosure, the sheep milled around at his feet, asking for attention and expressing affection. As he moved, they moved with him, weaving in and out of his path. I watched with fascination. They had ignored every other voice, but this one they knew, trusted and followed.

There is a cost associated with that level of trust and devotion. The shepherd had built this bond with the sheep through constant attention, faithfully meting their needs, and spending time with them in the field. Shepherding is not a job. It is a way of life.

To be a shepherd is to care deeply and consistently for the sheep. To be a good shepherd is to stand between the sheep and anything that threatens them. It means being willing to risk, and perhaps sacrifice, one’s own life for the sake of the flock. 

I hear echoes of Zechariah 13:7 – “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered…” It is not a picture of desertion, but a strategy for sparing the flock. The shepherd stands in defense of the flock so that they can run to safety. 

Jesus came to teach, preach, heal and deliver us. But that is not all that He came to do. Sin carries a penalty, and the flock of humankind has an enemy. Jesus came to stand between us and the enemy of our souls. He would absorb the penalty, letting His mortal body fall to the enemy’s attack. It would seem to be a decisive defeat, but it was, in fact, an eternal victory.

Jesus said:

I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.

John 10:14-15 (NASB)

First He said it. Then He did it. Now it is done, and we are set free to follow the risen Lord, or to wander back into the influence of the enemy. The choice is our own. What will we choose?

My Santa Letter

This is an open letter to Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, as we approach the anniversary of his death. I do not expect a response. I am sure that Nicholas is occupied with matters of that other realm toward which I am moving. I am not really seeking a conversation. It is just that so many letters are written to him these days, I wanted mine in the mix.

Dear Saint Nicholas,

I want to humbly apologize for the profound ignorance and arrogant misapplication of your good name among us. Your life was, and continues to be, exemplary of the level of kindness and generosity to which our Lord called us all, but which few of us ever approach as perfectly as you did. You do not deserve to be demoted to the role of a magic wielding, flying-reindeer wrangler who lives at the North Pole as a slave to the endless cravings of spoiled children. If it is any consolation, too many of us have done the same to the Lord we serve, making Him so much less than He is and expecting Him to rubber-stamp our own spiritual musings as if He served us rather than the other way around.

This month, many letters will be sent to you from children all over the world. Some of them will be sweet and poignant, sharing stories of suffering and struggle. A few will be letters of confession, seeking mercy from you. I wish these little ones could hear your true story. It would lead them to the grace and mercy their tiny hearts are craving.

Most of the letters will be nothing more than lists of expectations, assurances of previous (somewhat exaggerated) good behavior and veiled suggestions that future behavior is hinged to your meeting the demands of the list. (Sometimes I honestly think a few stockings of coal and switches would do a world of good, but neither you nor I have any control over that, now, do we?)

As far as what I want for Christmas, I want what you always wanted: eyes to see the plight of my neighbors, a heart that embraces the depths of God’s grace, and humility of spirit to be diminished in the process of lifting the name of the One I serve, so that He is seen and I am absorbed into that revelation. I want to have enough to share, and the faith to share without fear of the future. 

You chose to impoverish yourself for the sake of the poor. I honor your choice. I wish I could say that the whole world honors you, but that would be less than honest. Most of them don’t know you. They are poorer for that ignorance. 

So, let me close with this: I am glad that, long ago, you came to the end of your mortal suffering. I know that you were persecuted and imprisoned for your faith in Jesus Christ, and that you kept your Christian integrity through that suffering. Thank you for your contribution to the Council of Nicaea that helped to form the faith we share. Thank you for your example of selflessness that mirrored the example of the humble Jesus. 

I know that’s not you on that flying sleigh, sliding down chimneys to leave overpriced breakables and gobble up cookies and milk. I see you. I recognize you. I honor you. But I doubt that matters much to you right now. You see face to face the One you served so well. How could anything so mundane as a letter from this realm matter at all?



A fallen tree in the woods

In Dark Times

This season of light, as we like to call it, is a pretty dark time for many people.

  • Some suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and as the days shorten and the darkness creeps in, they grow increasingly melancholy.
  • Others are in a season of loss. Perhaps it is triggered by severe illness, the ending of a treasured friendship, the collapse of a career or the aged aspect of the reflection in the mirror.
  • For some, the death of a loved one brings the shadow of grief across the holiday landscape.

In these dark times, it is helpful to remember that we are not walking in the glow of our own good works or good fortune. Jesus spoke of walking in the light, but not just any light. I read:

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

John 8:12 (NASB)

I look at His words through the lens of struggle, and see that He used the definite article “the” (ho) before both the words “light” and “life:” (ho phōs ho zōē). We walk in not just any light, but the light. That light flows from not just any life, but the life

The light of the life of Christian discipleship does not flow from what we have done or are doing. It does not find its origins in the respect others have for us, our vocational achievements or our accumulated wealth. That light flows from the life of the One who is wholly Other, but walked among us as one of us. Whatever we face, in good company, alone or surrounded by our enemies, ho phōs ho zōē, here we stand in the light of the life.

If we are loved, accepted, respected and praised, that light surrounds us. If we are hated, rejected, despised and vilified, that light surrounds us. There is no hint of a shadow in that circle of light, because… 

Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.

James 1:17 (NASB)

Even our struggle is sanctified to God’s purpose. Even our suffering is formational for us, so that we are finally conformed to His image. This storm is a gift. Can we embrace the truth in that? 

Let us lean into that single-source light in the midst of our deepest darkness. In this and every season, that light will not fail us. It will not change. It will not fade. It will not be extinguished by this, or any, trial. 

Let there be light in your life, and in mine.

Let there be Light in your life and mine.

Advent 1: Pay Attention!

Because there were requests for it, here is the Sunday Sermon.

As we take our first steps into the Advent Season, we are holding in tension the things we see and the things we believe. We know that the world in which we live is broken, but we are leaning into that day when all things will be made new, and we will rise out of brokenness into real integrity.
Between this day and that day there will be an apocalypse.

Advent is more than a holiday season. It is a time set aside to reflect on that coming day, and to prepare our souls for it.

  • Are you ready?
  • Are you getting ready?
  • Are you closing your eyes and pretending that day will never come?

Pray with me:
Father, we believe that the seed Jesus planted on the cross of Calvary will someday yield a massive harvest of souls. We are part of that harvest, and we are laborers in the field. Open our eyes to the prophecies surrounding that coming apocalypse and make us ready. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Jesus spoke to His disciples about the coming apocalypse. He gave them signs and spoke of a season of warning. He urged confidence in the face of global changes. This morning, before we go to the Table of the Lord, we will look at those signs and ask ourselves how we ought to respond to them in this age.

Signs of the End of Days

Strange signs in the sun, moon and stars

Regarding the sun, we are increasingly aware of…

  • Sunspots – storms on the surface of the sun) with the power to disrupt our communications.
  • Solar Flares – the surface of the sun is covered with huge magnetic loops called prominences. When two of these loops touch, they short-circuit, and massive flares of plasma spew out into space at the speed of light. According to NASA, a solar flare contains energy that’s “10 million times greater than the energy released from a volcanic explosion.”
  • Solar winds – With a temperature of nearly 2 million degrees Fahrenheit and traveling at 559 miles per second, solar winds consistently reach Earth’s atmosphere.

And then, there’s the moon:

When four total lunar eclipses happen in the span of two years, the phenomenon is called a lunar tetrad. In the 250 years between 1582 and 1908 there were no tetrads at all, but we have seen 2 tetrads in our lifetime. Both tetrads happened in a span of 12 years, between 2003 and 2015 To recap: none for 250 years, then 2 in a dozen years.

And, in the stars – NASA tells us that:

  • Every day, Earth is bombarded with more than 100 tons of dust and sand-sized particles.
  • About once a year, an automobile-sized asteroid hits Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball, and burns up before reaching the surface.
  • Every 2,000 years or so, a meteoroid the size of a football field hits Earth and causes significant damage to the area.
  • Anything larger than a kilometer (a little more than one-half mile) could have worldwide effects. Such objects are out there…

This is our current reality, and we have no reason to think that this is a recent increase in frequency. But it certainly is an increase in the awareness of the possibility of catastrophic impacts.

Nations will be in turmoil.Do I need to say anything at all to make you aware that there is a systemic turmoil among the nations of the world? As a global community, we are experiencing unprecedented unrest, and the worst occurrences of mass migration in all of history.

You know that crisis at our southern border? Whatever else it is, it is an occurrence of mass migration. With this example in this hemisphere, we see that the problem is genuinely world-wide.

Powers in the heavens will be shaken. This generation has seen a strange convergence of a rise in spirituality and a push toward secularization. What do I mean by that? it can be summed up in a single concept – you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual.

Our belief-sets are being systematically deconstructed. Long held beliefs are being abandoned or reformed, and some faiths are being militarized by extremists. Fear is being used as a weapon, and faith is being villainized. Jesus said: “So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

Responses to the signs of End of Days

Jesus gave us three specific prescriptions for thriving in these times:

  • Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness
  • Don’t let your hearts be dulled by worries of this life
  • And then He said, “Keep alert at all times.”

Finally, He said “And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”

Oh, Lord, let it be so.

“And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree. When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near. I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.

“Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth. Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”

Gospel Lesson Luke 21:25-36

…when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up…