Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Your Best Day Ever?"

One of my stress-busters during the “holiday season” is to watch syrupy, formula Christmas movies with my wife, Jill.  She selects the best of Hallmark or Lifetime, all of which follow pretty much the same plot. Someone loves Christmas; someone else threatens to ruin Christmas; a “miracle” happens to transform the “Scrooge” character so that he or she saves Christmas. And I cry at the end every time. I cannot help myself. I see it coming but, anyway, bam, they get me.  Besides the redeeming value of taking my mind completely away from everything else for 90 minutes, every once in a while there is a memorable line, like this one spoken by the Christmastide fan to the Scrooge-character: “What was your best day ever? When you don’t know you can fail; you can smell it; taste it; you know you can hit it out of the park?”

Which got me thinking about what was my best day ever?  What is the meaning of “best” anyway? Does it mean “most memorable”? “Most life-altering?” “Most fun?” And then I started wondering, would my best day ever be a day about what happened to me, or what happened to someone else, someone I love?  Is “best” defined by the best slice of pizza I ever ate or the best hotel I ever stayed at or the most romantic night I ever had with my wife?  It is really hard to select one day out of a 59 years.  The easy answer, is of course, my wedding day, and the days my children and grandsons were born.  But, for purposes of this quiz, let’s exclude those days.  What were the elements of your best day ever? Why?

I find it easier to reflect in shorter blocks of time. Like today: I am going to spend the day with our son and grandsons watching the Badgers play basketball in Madison. Or Christmas Eve, listening to our daughter share a Christmas meditation and two daughters in the faith meditate in word and song about the incarnation. Or Thanksgiving Day, having spaghetti in the box meal with Jill in a hotel room followed by a winter walk in the downtown area looking for stores opening early.  All “best days.” 

As you reflect on the year gone by, was there a day or a few days which jump off the calendar at you? Who was there? Where were you? What were you doing?  And then say a prayer of thanksgiving for that experience, for the blessing of God upon that day, that time, those people.  On you.  And wonder, is my best day ever still to come?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Dec. 22 Worship Service at Hope Church

As we were unable to have worship at Hope due to weather concerns, I am posting the summary of the elements of today's worship service. May you join your heart and voice with mine as we worship our God and the Child who is King!

Advent IV

*Be silent as you prepare to receive the WORD...O Come Thou Dayspring, Come. Emmanuel...God is with us.

*The Word is brought forward to remind us, Christ has come, Christ is coming again.  All of the Advent Candles are lit, save for the Christ Candle.

*Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Grace mercy and peace to you from God our Father and his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ!

*O Come, Desire of Nations, bind All peoples in one heart and mind. Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

*Good Christian Friends, Rejoice with heart and soul and voice; Give ye heed to what we say: News! News! Jesus Christ is born today!

*Psalm 80: Hear us, Shepherd of Israel...Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved.
*Matthew 1:18-25; The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!

*Thou Didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me. O come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee!

*Father, we confess that we have failed to see the signs; that we have put our own spin on your signs of peace. Amen.
Friends, your sins are forgiven today, from the cradle to the cross the sign of peace is carried to your heart. Now, go and bring signs of peace to your neighbor.

*We worship again Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. Bring a friend who is seeking the calm promise of Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

*We pray this day for safe travel; for healing; for a healing presence among the people of Hope; for the message of peace to heal strife-torn places. We pray that Christ, the Blessed Child, the Risen King, would be praised in the darkest places. Let your light shine upon us, Emmanuel! We pray with Christ, Our Father....

*Isaiah 7:10-16; The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

*Sermon: Signs of Peace
King Ahaz was troubled as his enemies came to de-throne him and destroy Judah. He fancied he should submit to the invading enemy. But, Isaiah offered a solution: ask God for a sign that he will bring peace! Ask for any sign, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. But Ahaz was too proud, too fearful, to seek a sign from God. He, the king, would provide the solution.  So, God sends a sign anyway, "the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (God with us).  God was with the remnant of Judah, but Ahaz and his nation were defeated.

What troubles stare you in the face today? Where are you looking for solutions? Where do you seek peace? God is sending you a sign this day. Will you see it? Will you seek to understand the beauty of this simple and amazing sign: God sent his son to take on your flesh and to live in your heart. God is with you. Do you see the sign?  God will conquer your enemies if you will receive the sign of peace.

A sign does not create faith though. God still expects you to step forward in faith. God expects you to trust him in your journey. Where do you need to trust God's direction by faith today?  Then, after you step forward in faith, God will send you a sign to confirm that your faith was well-placed.

Joseph doubted whether to stay with Mary, the mother of the miraculously conceived child. But, he was reminded, this pregnancy is the will and act of God. So, he married the young girl, the virgin mother.  And so, the sign of peace given to Ahaz was lifted up again: God is with us. Trust God to make a way.

As it was with Joseph, so it is with us: do we hear the angel speak; do we trust the Spirit's action? If so, then God will send a sign to confirm God, this is of God.

Jesus is with us. Now, and in the hour of our death, and then in the hour of our new birth.  Look for the signs of peace that confirm Jesus is here: 5000 meals offered in First Hope Meals. 5000 hours of companionship and prayer for our Kids Hope kids.  Mary Justus starts a little wave of peace-giving, one person at a time.

There are signs of peace all around us. Will we be blind, like Ahaz, and trust our worst enemy? Or will we be faithful, like Joseph, trusting that God knows what he is doing in your life, and that whatever it is, and wherever it takes you, God is with us.  Look for the sign of peace in your life this week. God is with you! Amen.

*I heard the bells on Christmas Day: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men."

*The Lord Bless you and Keep you; Accept God's Love; Be confident in your faith and hope; and Carry the Light of the Cross. And on this final Sunday of Advent, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with....

*Let There Be Peace on Earth


Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Imagine This!" Rated PG-13

Mrs. Claus was in top form.  Her audience, consisting of daycare kids ages 2-5, were in awe that Mrs. Claus had taken time to visit them. And, what with Christmas Day being so close, of course Santa was not expected to be there in person.  Mrs. Claus acknowledged the Elf on the Shelf, recalling for the children the work he had done so well at the North Pole before being dispatched to be Santa’s eyes and ears in the daycare center. The curious children asked the questions about the reindeer and flying around the world and a dozen other topics which gave evidence to their being true believers.  All except for one little girl who stood quietly in the back of the room.  She eyed Mrs. Claus with great suspicion, for she had the appearance and voice which looked just too much familiar, bearing an eerie resemblance to the lady from the front office who sometimes comes to talk to the adults running their daycare.  And anyway, perhaps the little girl wondered, how exactly did Mrs. Claus get here if the reindeer are at the North Pole?  Well, the time came for Mrs. Claus to head back to supervise the final preparations for Santa’s big day, so she bade farewell to the children.  All except the doubting little girl who now slowly approached Mrs. Claus and as she got close she peered into her eyes, just double-checking if this was the front office lady or not.  And then she reached up with her tiny arms and put them around Mrs. Claus’ neck and hugged her tight saying, “Thank you so much for coming. I am so glad you are real.”

Now, here’s why this is rated PG-13: Mrs. Claus is not real.  One day reality meets our imagination, and one day, sometimes with a boom and sometimes like a slow dawn, we learn it isn’t so.  But, we, or least I, never want to be the one who tells a true believer that it isn’t so.  Imagination is, after all, the beginning of faith.  You see, children of the Most High God are introduced to the concept of a God they cannot see; and Christian children are introduced to the idea of the baby Jesus, at about the same time they first meet the red-suited couple and their little helpers.  They imagine it all. And they have no reason not to believe any of it because Momma or Grandpa says it’s so, and so it is.  But then, one day, we all learn the Claus’s are not real.  And then something amazing happens: the God, the Jesus, we imagined becomes more real.  Born inside of us is a faith which knows that God, that the Baby and his young mother Mary and her trusting husband Joseph are as real as Papa and Grandma told us.  Oh, sometimes we wonder where God is, and maybe if he is.  But the gift of the Spirit is a sign just when we need it that the Gift in the straw is real.  We may approach the stable doubting,  needing to look someone right in the eye, just double-checking. But then each Christmas we finally are able to say, “Thank you so much for coming. I am so glad you are real.”

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Let It Rain (or Snow)

I am not any longer going to pray that the rain (or snow) stays away.  Not that God doesn’t listen to prayers about when I would like for it to rain, because God listens to every prayer.  It’s just that God knows more about the weather needs of the world than I do.  This is a big step for me, and it is much easier to write this in the middle of December than it will be to live it out in the middle of June when I have a big golf match planned and the forecast is for rain.  My practice has been, for years, to pray for sunshine during the day and rain at night because that is most convenient to my lifestyle.  But, from now on, God, let it rain. (And for those of you reading this in winter climates, you can add, “Let it snow.”)  It’s all a matter of perspective.  Is rain (or snow) good or bad, a blessing or a curse?  To the snow shoveling crowd, snow is no fun. To the snow-shoeing crowd it is the necessary ingredient to a great day outdoors.   To the golfer who went south for golf trip, rain is a real downer, but for the farmer there waiting for the drought to end, rain is answered prayer.  So, God, send your blessing, send your healing rain (or snow). This is my new prayer.

What made me think about all of this was watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.  Thousands gathered to hear world leaders honor the memory of one of the all-time greatest heroes of transforming reconciliation, and it was raining.  It was pouring down rain.  And the harder it rained, the louder the crowd cheered. Why? Well, didn’t you know that when it rains at someone’s funeral it is a sure sign that this person’s life was blessed by God to be a blessing? The thing about moisture from the sky is that it doesn’t discriminate.  And that is why it was so fitting that Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was drenched in rain.  Here was a man who lived a life imagining ways to bring healing to broken relationships.  And the great thing about doing social healing work is that the blessing is given to all who are touched by it, the friend and the foe, the good and the evil.  When Jesus says that the Father sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, his simple point is, love your friends and your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-47) God sends the rain (or snow) and the blessing it is abounds to all.  God sent his servant Nelson to bless one nation, and the world benefitted.

So today, why don’t you celebrate the rain (or snow) by raining down love and compassion?  Who do you know could use a little healing? Go. Call. Be the blessing rain.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why The Night Was Silent

When in awe
be silent
be still
know God
is  God

My dear friends…are you waiting for God? Maybe God is waiting for you…to be silent; to listen in the silence; to know God. This is to know awe-filled peace.  This is Advent.

“The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they really think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy…. we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay. But if we can bear to let it be, silence, of course, can be communion at a very deep level indeed…”

- Originally published in The Hungering Dark, Frederick Buechner