Advent Love

In a remote outpost of the empire, an area called Judea, a small town called Nazareth, a man and woman begin a long journey. She is almost nine months pregnant. They head south, toward Bethlehem, his hometown, to be counted in a census. It is a hard journey. He walks mostly. She rides on their donkey. Some nights they sleep out under the stars. Finally, they arrive in Bethlehem, a small village. The only inn is already full. The innkeeper, seeing the woman’s condition, offers the stable out back. That night, her labor begins and the baby comes. Together they wrap their infant son in the bands of clean cloth they have brought along for that purpose. 
Each Christmas the world stops to listen to the story because of the possibility that it contains truth: truth about God, truth about us, truth about who we are and who we are meant to be.
Scottish poet George MacDonald wrote,
They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high:
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing
That made a woman cry.
The story says that the very essence of God is not what we expect—power and majesty—but vulnerable love, love born among us in an infant. “God so loved the world, that God gave his only Son,” the Bible says (John 3:16). “God is love . . ., and those who abide in love, abide in God and God abides in them.”
That is what the story wants from us—that we abide in love, that we love one another, that we love those no one else loves, that we love life and this beautiful world, that we love God.
Dr. Henry Betts, founder and former CEO of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago is an advocate for people with disabilities. He tells a story about a young man in the Rehab Institute, a paraplegic teenager, who became terribly depressed, stopped communicating with anyone, was virtually speechless, wouldn’t get out of bed, assumed a fetal position all day long, and went into what Dr. Betts called total withdrawal.
The staff put another patient in the room with him, a three-year-old boy who had been severely burned. The teenager turned his back and ignored the little boy at first, then began to notice and watch him and listen to what nurses and doctors were saying. And a miracle happened: the teenager started to care about his little roommate. Before long he was pressing the call button, telling the nurses to bring pain medicine, nagging—maybe he needed some water, some more food, he wasn’t eating enough; he started to tell the nurses and doctors what he observed and advised them as to treatment and therapy. The teenager started to care, to have compassion, to love—and to live.
The world stops at the conclusion of Advent, at Christmas, when everything is quiet, and listens to a story about God, about love, about life, about what it means to be alive; a story that invites us to open our hearts and to love one another.
The world stops and in some way all of us: old, young, believers and non-believers
“come to Bethlehem to see
him whose birth the angels sing;
Come, adore, on bended knee
Christ, the Lord, the newborn King”.

Advent Joy

Have you ever listened to an a cappella group sing?  It is music created using only the voices of singers; while we think we hear sounds of bells and drums, those sounds are being made…by voices.  The group works to create harmonies using their voices - each voice singing a different part, the whole sound an amazing creation of harmony.
We have been listening for the sounds of Advent for three weeks now and we realize that the “sound” of Advent is very often not a harmony.  We hear and sing some of the most beautiful music of the entire year during Advent.  But we sing it to call forth hope, peace, joy, love: things for which we long, in a world full of harsh notes and competing sounds.
Instead of soft, sweet harmonies, many times the reality of living hurts our ears: desperation competes with hope; broken relationships and conflict compete with peace; sorrow and grief compete with joy; hatred tries to drown out love.  Our lives are often full of discordant sounds that make us want to cover our ears and run away.
The third Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of joy. We read the words of a song attributed to Mary. It is called The Magnificat, Mary’s essay about the state of the world and her insistence that it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Young Mary is pregnant and she travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child.  They greet each other and Mary sings these words: “…the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name…he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty….”
Mary’s life is filled with notes of fear, desperation, and uncertainty. And still, she sings a song of liberation and freedom, of righting old wrongs, of bringing life and healing and hope into a situation—into a world—where these are not apparent.
That is joy.  Speaking promise into pain.  Not sugary, smiley, everything-is-just-great giddiness, but an assurance in the middle of the desperation, that this is not the final word for us. It takes naming the horror and pain and brokenness in which we find ourselves and declaring that God has already fixed it; that there is a reality for which we long already in place, and that we will choose to live into that reality.  
That’s joy: the insistence that God has already done what we cannot manage to do on our own, and we will celebrate that.  We sing of the God who shows up and creates life out of death. We sing with Mary, “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”
During Advent we listen for songs of joy, speaking of a reality in which we must, and will believe.  
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
     whose forms are bending low,
     who toil along the climbing way
     with painful steps and slow,
     look now! for glad and golden hours
     come swiftly on the wing.
     O rest beside the weary road,
     and hear the angels sing!

Advent Peace

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. . . .
Isaiah 11:6

Nineteenth-century American artist Edward Hicks loved that vision so much that he painted it more than 100 times: The Peaceable Kingdom. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The animals are all there: wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion. Hicks gave all the animals expressive faces that look a little human. The eyes are big, wide open, as if they’ve just been startled by something. In fact, that was the artist’s point: this vision is not something one sees every day—or ever.

Woody Allen observed once that when the calf and the lion lie down together, the calf isn’t going to get much sleep. Those animals, of course, are natural adversaries. It’s not that they don’t like one another. It’s just how they are made. Wolves, leopards, and lions need protein. Lambs, kids, and calves are protein. It is a startling reorganization of creation. And the little child is in the midst of them.

The yearning for peace is timeless and universal. All people want peace for themselves and their children. It is a longing that is deep within the human heart.

It is also one of the great themes of the Bible in both Old and New Testaments. At the birth of Jesus, an angel chorus sings about peace on earth. Jesus tells his disciples that when they enter a house they should say a blessing, “Peace be to this house.” The first thing the risen Christ said to his disciples when he appeared in their midst was “Peace be with you.” And when the first Christians worshiped, they “passed the peace,” repeating the words of the risen Lord as they embraced or shook hands: “Peace be with you.”

The sad fact is that there has never been a time when there wasn’t a war happening somewhere in the world. Woody Allen seems closer to reality than Isaiah. In December 2017 peace seems remote. Christians have always had to live in the tension between Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom and the real world, between Jesus’ teaching about peaceful nonviolence and a world where nations invade neighbors and where cruelty is just beneath the surface. We live in the tension between the yearning for peace, the Peaceable Kingdom, the Peace of Jesus Christ, and the reality of the world. And we need, perhaps more than ever, to wait and watch for signs of peace.

I saw some signs of hope this week. I saw a child leading, a child with a significant challenge—Down syndrome; Anna, 10-year-old daughter of a friend, struggling to keep up, nothing is easy for her. Amazingly, she has transformed a class of noisy, lively preadolescents into caring and kind friends, who planned a surprise birthday party for her and sang “Happy Birthday” to her — and each brought a small birthday present, and each has been taught something important about caring and love, and later, I am sure, about justice and kindness and peace.

It is Advent and the child is coming.

Frederick Buechner wrote,

“The kingdom of God is so close we can almost reach out our hands and touch it. It is so close that sometimes it almost reaches out and takes us by the hand. . . . All over the world you can hear it stirring, if you stop to listen. Good things are happening in and through all sorts of people. . . . Tolerance, Compassion, Sanity, Hope, Justice.”

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together
and a little child shall lead them.




Advent Hope

Fifty years ago German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote a book titled Theology of Hope. It became mandatory reading for all divinity students, and popular reading even outside of seminaries. The book made it to the front page of the New York Times. One of Theology of Hope’s main themes is Advent, God’s coming to the world to redeem it. 
The book’s popularity probably owes much to the fact that when it was published,  “hope” was in the air. It was the “Kennedy era” in the U.S. and the time of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. The Western world was about to experience the power of radical student movements. Theology of Hope was riding a global wave of social hope. But what really was in the air when Theology of Hope came off the press was optimism, not hope. The two are easily confused, Moltmann argues, although both optimism and hope involve positive expectations of the future.
Optimism is based on “cause and effect thinking.” We draw conclusions about the future on the basis of the experience with the past and present. We believe that events can be explained as effects of previous causes. Since “this” has happened, we conclude that “that” is likely to happen. Since my daughter Emily could pick up Little Bear and read it when she was in kindergarten, I could be optimistic that she would do reasonably well in grade one. Optimism can also be misplaced. My son Harald was very good at throwing a ball when he was young, but it would have been foolish for me to bet that he was going to land a multimillion-dollar contract with a pro ball team and take care of my retirement.
One of Moltmann’s greatest contributions in Theology of Hope was to insist that hope, unlike optimism, is independent of people’s circumstances. Hope is not based on the possibilities of the situation and on correct predictions about the future, but grounded in the faithfulness of God.
Optimism is based on the possibilities of things as they have come to be; hope is based on the possibilities of God regardless of how things are. Hope is alive even in situations which, for cause-and-effect thinking, can elicit only hopelessness.  Hope is based on God’s coming into the darkness to dispel it with divine light.
Every year in the Advent season we read the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isa. 9:2). This is what Christmas is all about—something radically new that cannot be generated out of the conditions of this world. It does not emerge. It comes. God promises it.
If darkness has descended on you and your world, try not to persuade yourself that things are not as bad as they seem or to search for reasons to be optimistic. Instead remind yourself of a simple fact: the light of the One who was in the beginning with God shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. That is Advent hope.

Where is God?

This year we have been asking the question, "Where do you find God?".  At Lenten services, we heard a different answer each week from the experiences and lives of different people.  We continue to ask the question and explore the answers we hear and read.  This is part of a journey that we are on as individuals and as a community, as we grow in our vision and connect to God, others, and self.

One Saturday morning in May, a small group gathered to reflect on this and the related question, "Where is God?", using Diana Butler Bass's book Grounded as the launching point for our conversation and to make connections.  As part of morning prayer, we read statements that Pastor Tuula had found for us to begin to contemplate the question.  Do any of these speak to you?  Here are the statements...

"To follow God, one must be a little 'out of their mind' (and 'into their Spirit')."  -- Donald L. Hicks

"A common mistake we make is that we look for God in places where we ourselves wish to find him, yet even in the physical reality this is a complete failure.  For example, if you lost your car keys, you would not search where you want to search, you would search where you must in order to find them."  -- Criss Jami

"When you can see God in small things, you'll see God in all things." -- Donald L. Hicks

"How can you seek God if he's already here?  It's like standing in the ocean and crying out, 'I want to get wet.'  You want to get over the line to God.  It turns out he was always there."  ...  "Grace comes to those who stop struggling.  When it really sinks in that there's nothing you can do to find God, he suddenly appears.  That's the deepest mystery, the only one that counts." --Deepak Chopra

"God is here, right now, at our side.  We can see him in this mist, in the ground we're walking on, even in my shoes.  His angels keep watch while we sleep and help us in our work.  In order to find God, you have only to look around." -- Paulo Coelho

"What writing teaches me, over and over, is that God is waiting to be found everywhere, in the darkest corners of our lives, the dead ends and bad neighbourhoods we wake up in, and in the simplest, lightest, most singular and luminous moments.  He's hiding, like a child, in quite obvious and visible places, because he wants to be found.  The miracle is that he dwells in both." -- Shauna Niequist

"In order to have a spiritual life, you need not enter a seminary, or fast, or abstain, or take a vow of chastity.  All you have to do is have faith and accept God.  From then on, each of us becomes a part of His path.  We become vehicles for His miracles."  -- Paulo Coelho

"Listen to the murmur of water and you'll hear Mother Nature.  Listen to the stillness beneath, and there you'll find God."  -- Donald L. Hicks

"One of the most challenging aspects for those who are seeking to find the God of their understanding for the first time is His formlessness.  It can be difficult to believe in, and connect with, something that cannot be seen.  Perhaps this is because although God is in all things He is felt and experienced on levels that relate directly to the condition of our own hearts."  -- Marta Mrotek

"Truth is in all our hearts.  He who stands by his heart has God in him.  Our conscience is what unites us with God." -- Suzy Kassem