Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent people

For some reason, most likely the Holy Spirit had something to do with it, I decided to slow down the race to Christmas and take time to sit and be with Advent this year. After the events of the past week I am glad I did so.

Often times we 'churchy' people say we are people of the cross...we also say we are Easter people - or resurrection people and I have a friend who likes to say that we are blessed because every day is a new beginning - we are redemption people.

Never before have I wanted to claim being an Advent person - until this year. You know Advent, right? That awkward 4 weeks or so before Christmas. Advent starts off the Christian liturgical calendar with the First Sunday of Advent and then with a few fits and starts we build up to a full blown Christmas extravaganza!!

If one follows the revised common lectionary, Advent dwells more on the ministry and call of John the Baptist and the return of Christ the King than the stable in Bethlehem. Its kind of a downer for retailers, tho...and we all want to sing the beautiful music of Christmas, right?  So most often we skip the yearning lessons and hymns of the Advent season and dive into the celebration of baby Jesus' birth as we see him cooing - safe in his momma's arms.

Saturday night, December 15th, I received a phone call from my daughter-in-law telling me that my stepson, Alan, was killed in a car accident. This news has sent us all reeling. After stumbling through worship on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, we piled in two cars and drove 1100 miles to Columbia, South Carolina to grieve together and plan the funeral service for Steven Alan Wise, Jr. a 36 year old father of two little girls, husband of Lauren Rae and friend to all who ever knew him.  

It was in the midst of this that I was grateful for the tension that is ever present in Advent.  I was able to have hope in spite of the insanity that swirls around losing ones child.  I was also reminded of how very blessed I am to be part of a bigger church - a denomination founded on the principles of being in connection with one another.

The Columbia District Superintendent, Rev. Dr Tim McClendon, and I spoke several times and he then put me in contact with Rev. Tim Rogers, pastor of Mt Hebron United Methodist Church. Mt Hebron UMC graciously offered to not only provide worship space for Alan's memorial service, they also provided an organist, sound tech and Rev. Rogers assisted with the service. Folks from the church were on hand to serve as ushers and greeters and we were warmly welcomed and cared for. John Wesley would be proud, the Connexion is alive and well.

Family and friends here in Iowa and around the country have been so helpful and gracious.  Their generosity helped with our expenses, we are eternally grateful for the outpouring of love and care that we continue to receive.

To follow is my homily, I offer it as a simple way to make sense of it all. Before it was my turn to speak I sat with Alan's mom, and we held hands through the opening prayers. I thanked her for sharing Alan with me - his stepmom - his other mom.

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 5:13-16  (The Message)

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.

I met Alan for the first time right around his 10th birthday. When I married his dad, 15 months later, I told him that I was too young to be his mom….we laughed about that a time or two. I share this because I feel inadequate to stand up here today and tell you about Alan – you all knew him as much if not better than I did… there are, after all, some things moms, even stepmoms, aren’t supposed to know.

Alan taught me how to be a parent –trust me on this - he broke me in real good. He came to live with his father and sister Lauren and me when he was 14. That first year of school we had a routine – I’d wake him up for school, fix him 2 eggs, scrambled and toast with homemade jam. Usually strawberry – that was his favorite, sometimes apple butter too.

This routine of ours was a great way to start our day – it helped us to get to know each other better – and I think it made the transition from Columbia to Lilburn/Stone Mountain a little smoother…

There were other transitions, and bumps in the road – y’all know all about bumps and detours and such, don’t you?

Some how through it all, I believe by the grace of God, Alan kept his sense of humor…and that smile… I believe its what kept me from throttling him more than once.

I know its what earned him a place of love and respect from his friends and loved ones many of whom are here today – and there are a whole lot more scattered all over the country.

In the Bible passage I read just a moment ago…Jesus was encouraging his followers to live lives that were full of hope, peace and even joy – even though they lived in the midst of some awful times. They were basically living in an occupied country, surrounded by Roman soldiers who were propping up a king who just wanted to take everyone’s land and money – and then there were the religious leaders – the Pharisees who were so concerned about preserving the status quo that they weren’t doing that good of a job caring for the people who were hurting and in need all around them.   

Alan and his daughter, Angie
The amazing thing is that these people – the ones who started following Jesus –knew that the world was topsy turvey – they knew that something had to change – and still they felt like they were absolutely powerless to do anything about it - they learned that Jesus was speaking truth into dark places – with words of encouragement – he said words that seemed out of place – but speak deep truths of hope, peace and yes – even joy…

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.  (Matthew 5 - The Message)

Crazy, huh? Even today that sounds impossible – and yet – here is a way to live into God’s blessings – to be people who act as salt and light – full of hope, peace and joy.

And that’s what Jesus is teaching them – in this section of the gospel of Matthew in what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount -

13 “Let me tell you why you are here, Jesus said. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness?

Salt – the most common of all ingredients – salt is what makes food taste better – did you also realize it is an essential building block in our very cell structures –

Salt – like love – like friendship makes life better, sweeter, more palatable – doesn’t it?

14-16 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand.

Salt – and light – light and salt…here in this season of darkness – as winter officially begins this week – we know the importance of light – the glow of the front porch light that welcomes us home, candles on the mantle, little twinkling lights on the Christmas tree… they all make all of the difference in what would be an otherwise gloomy time of the year.

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Alan, well, Alan just knew how to light up a room. Come to think of it – he was kinda like a spot light - Alan’s life shined didn’t it – not some flimsy old dime store flashlight but a beacon – that burned bright.

It’s what drew us to him… his warmth, his laugh, his sparkly blue eyes, his mischievous nature even… honestly, its amazing some of the things he got away with!

Alan was also kind; he included everyone in his circle. And when he was present with you he was WITH you – 200%. This is what made Alan, Alan…It’s that special something that makes all the difference in the world!

I think it’s because Alan learned, at such a young age, how fragile life is – how precious every moment is –  I think it’s because Alan was a really good man, who loved his family and friends and who lived life to the fullest…that is why this passage from the Bible made me think of Alan – and made me think of the words to say to you, at a time when words can seem so hollow.

I am so sad that his time here on earth is done, because I think we all had a whole lot more to learn from Alan. I know that he wasn’t done yet… but here we are.  

What now? I don’t have the answers; in fact, this sort of thing is part of the great mystery of life. I don’t like thinking about how all of our lives are so different now with Alan’s death.

But I do know that what the world needs a whole lot more of is people who, like Alan, wrestle with the big questions about life – and make to peace with it all.

People, who like Alan, live like salt … who make life taste better…we need people who live their lives as if it truly counts – turning their life light on high beam – and turning their lives on for others – people who shine bright – like a spotlight – inviting others into the warm glow of living a life that is grounded in hope, peace and yes, even joy.

Jesus taught his followers – and all of us – how to do this – and its quite simple -

“Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”

As hard as it may seem, life will be salty again, the light will shine again – even if for a little while it seems to have dimmed just a bit.

After I finished, we all sang together - This little light of mine.   

Yes, in this season of my life I am an advent person....I am yearning for the return of Christ, I am yearning for the day when no more tears will fall, when all will be healed and whole and we will be in the very presence of God Almighty.  But we don't know the time or place - so much for the Mayan calendar predictions!!  :)

Until that day, I will do my best to let my light shine.  Even though there will be days when I feel worn and sad and hopeless...I can always return to Advent - for the good news is that Advent is the season of light, of hope and of promise.  

in Advent hope,

Friday, December 14, 2012

holding tight to the least and the lost

It was January, 2001.  I was working for  FOX 21 in Colorado Spring, CO.  It should have been one of the more exciting days in my career as a marketing and promotion manager - a HUGE news story broke...the Texas Seven, a gang of escaped inmates from Texas were located and subsequently captured literally in our back yard!

In December, 2000 the Texas Seven staged an elaborate jail break from a maximum security prison in Texas. They found their way to the front range of Colorado after killing a police officer in eastern Texas.  On Saturday, January 20th they were profiled on America's Most Wanted.  The next evening owners of a mobile home park in Woodland Park, CO started wondering about some men who had recently checked in.  The next day they reported their suspicions to the police and over several hours they were surrounded and captured.

There was just one problem.  I was at work in in Colorado Springs, my four children were in Woodland Park, and the only road between me and them was barricaded AND the phone lines into the area were 'temporarily out of order' as well!

All I could think of was that I wanted to get home - to be sure that my children were safe!  And yet, I couldn't get to them...the only way home was to go the back way, through Canon City...but to do this meant the difference between a 20 mile drive and a 104 mile journey - some of it on roads barely navigable in good weather, let alone winter!

Tonight, with the news coming out of Newtown, Connecticut, most of us want more than anything to wrap our arms in our children.  To hold them in our arms and never let them go!

I don't know that I ever talked with my children about the Texas Seven, or about my fears for them during the afternoon of January 22, 2001.   I am not sure that I would advise parents today to talk about it a whole lot, although with 24 hour news and information, we may just have to.  There are a number of resources out there for parents of children of all ages to use as we broach the subject of safety in school as well as at home or out in the marketplace.  (Here are some resources from the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship)

Parenting is different today from my parents era. We know what is happening around the globe almost instantaneously.  News that is horrifying, such as the shooting in Newtown, or the recent discovery of the bodies of kidnapped cousins Elizabeth and Lyric here in Iowa, make us wonder where God is in the midst of all of this.

I can say with great assurance that God is here,  we are not alone and it is important that we join together to pray.  Yes, pray!  Pray for peace, pray for the children...not just our own but all of those who are vulnerable.

We must also pray for wisdom as we consider the crisis that we currently have around mental health care.  Resources for those who are vulnerable because of mental health needs are being cut left and right.  Healing will come when we care first and foremost for the least and the lost, the orphan and the widow.

This is one of the reasons the 2nd person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ, came to earth in the first place. The opening lines from his first sermon lay it all out:

As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written,

"God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”  (Luke 4:18-21  The Message)

We don't want to think of the harsh realities of death and dying in this 'most wonderful time of the year' and yet, and we are - face to face with the brokenness of our hurting world.  And so we pray, we hold one another close and we remember that God loved us so much that he was willing to enter into our life, our fears, or brokenness.

As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the new born king, please join me in praying for God to reveal new ways for each of us to reach out and care for the least and lost in our communities as well.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy, 


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Advent 1: have you heard the one about the fig tree?

The first Sunday of Advent doesn't start out as you'd expect.  Here we are, less than 4 weeks away from Christmas and there are no angels, baby showers or cute booties being knit by anxious grandmothers.  Instead we see Jesus, fully grown and teaching in front of the temple in Jerusalem.  (read Luke 21:25-36 here)  Jesus is teaching his disciples about the realities that they are about to face - the temple will soon fall, the whole world will seem to fall apart, and then all heck is gonna break loose.  But don't fret, instead be prepared because only then will He return in all his glory!

Of course, they had no idea what he was talking about, return?  From where?  To where?  Here?  Without the temple?  What a mess.  In the midst of their confusion, he teaches with a parable about a fig tree and sprouts and the change of seasons.

I love how the Son of God uses the simplest of things, like nature, to teach us about the kingdom of God.  I'm grateful that I grew up on a farm, that I know what sheep are really like (trust me, they aren't very bright), that I know what freshly tilled earth smells like (like heaven), I have seen acre after acre of good seed pushing through the earth reaching for the heavens.

Sunday, Nov 25
I also know what a sick plant looks like.  This is a cyclamen, a very sick and sad cyclamen at that!  A quick check of the soil in the pot and I realized it was desperately in need of a drink of water.

This cyclamen lives in our church coffee area and when I saw it, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it looked miserable.  It actually looked about as good as I felt.  I was anxious about the approaching advent season.  I had been wrestling with God about what I could say to the people of Trinity about Advent - this time of yearning and anticipation... I knew that I needed to hold back from the birth of Jesus, for as much as I wanted to leap into the manger I knew I had spend some time, even if only for a brief while, living in the realities of our brokenness and hurts.
Sunday, Nov 25

It's not that I want to dwell on bad stuff, but I fear we are all too quick to hide our hurts and disappointments from one another and ourselves too for that matter!  It's a whole lot easier to keep busy and jump to the warm fuzzy, cute little baby stuff.  But the Holy Spirit wouldn't let me go there, not yet.  Conversation after conversation with folks in the parish reaffirmed my thinking.

I don’t know about you but sometimes I feel like the Hebrew people in Egypt – frustrated and upset – certain that God has forgotten all about us…Jesus’ disciples, Paul included, figured that Christ would come again in THEIR lifetimes… that was only 1970 or so years ago!  Come, Lord Jesus, Come already!  How much longer, Lord?  How much longer will your people have to languish here in the wilderness?  We are yearning for your Kingdom to come...for you to dwell among us.

Tuesday, November 27
And yet, I saw hope in the cyclamen...because even thought it was obviously in distress, it was also creating new shoots.  In the midst of its demise, it was putting forth new life.  I wondered, if instead of the compost pile all it really needed was fresh water and more sun light.

Two days later and I took another picture, and lo and behold, things were starting to perk up already.  What had been lost, was found, what had once been a dire consequence of poor horticulture practices, was now a plant on the mend...there was hope again.

Eugene Peterson in The Message Study Bible notes on Luke 21 wrote these words to both challenge and encourage us:
In this chapter [Luke 21] Jesus recites a litany of disasters that are most surely going to befall us: wars and insurrections, earthquakes, famines, epidemics of disaster, accusation and imprisonment, hate, betrayal at the hands of parents and children, close relatives and good friends.  Jesus touches base with everything that can possibly go wrong: natural disasters, political disasters, social disruption, personal betrayals.   
Does he have it all together when he says, "Don't be frightened in this very frightening history, in this very frightening world, in these very frightening circumstances"?  Does he make sense? 
Yes, he makes sense.  He's proclaiming a way of life that has its feet on the ground, that's reasonable and whole and practical but that's vastly different and superior to what we're used to.  Death isn't the worst thing that can happen to us.  Suffering isn't the worst thing that can happen to us.  Rejection isn't the worst thing that can happen to us.  Poverty and illness aren't the worst things that can happen to us 
The worst thing is to be without meaning, without love, without purpose, without hope - without God.  But you aren't without God, ever.  You aren't cut off from him, ever.  The simplest act of faith puts you in relationship with him.  So don't be terrified, for not a hair of your head will perish.  (The Message Study Bible, page 1626)
Of course, now this wrestling match I've been having with the Holy Spirit makes sense.  I can’t take us to the manger without acknowledging the deep need that we all have for these words of truth… otherwise, I help to perpetuate the rush we have to Christmas all in the name of falalalala-lalalala.  

Sunday, December 2
Thanks to the parable of the cyclamen, I have been reminded of how important it is to drink deeply from the living water...turn toward the sun/Son...and see challenges as an opportunity for new growth - a chance to be creative and even risk some.  And trust.  Trust that God is always, always with us.

Christ will come again some day, this is a given.  In the meanwhile I will do my best to live my life as a prayer, for that is what Jesus said to do; 
Be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.  (Luke 21:34-36  The Message)
yearning for that day when Christ will come again,