An Advent Invocation

Remember when I said I wasn’t going to offer weekly prayers?

That is still my intention but it seems that I cannot write Christmas Eve without first wandering into the lamentation and hope of Advent. I have been working on a service for the Longest Night and Christmas Eve but couldn’t quite get into the movement of these liturgies until I first wrote this prayer. It came after listening to this song a few zillion times.

There is another version of the song here though I rather like the visuals in the one above. This shouldn’t be surprising if you’ve seen the liturgy I wrote for this season.

Prayer of Invocation

Sometimes, O God,
it feels impossible.
It all feels so impossible.
For here we are again
watching and waiting
for something 
to change 
so that your hope 
for this world 
might come alive
but now
now
now
O God
the earth is charred
and burnt.
There is weeping 
and wailing
for all 
that has 
been lost.
We are not certain
that change will come
even as we pray 
for the heavens to be torn open.
O God, come and teach us to sing again
for we need a new song. We are ready for a new song.
Come, O God. 

This prayer has sat in the working document for these other liturgies and I decided it might be worth sharing. I hope it is a gift to your planning.

You have already been busy planning for weeks, dear pastors. I know. You’ve wondered how you could possibly share the good news of Christ’s birth this year. I promise it will be perfect. All that you have planned will be all that it needs to be. Your love for these people and your hope for our world will shine through every stress. Remember that Saint Francis encouraged the faithful to preach the good news by walking and use words only when necessary. You are doing this, dear pastor. Every day, you are doing just this.

Pandemic Prayers for Advent and Christmas

Though I am not posting weekly prayers during these four weeks, I do not want to leave you orphaned. I also do not think that I am Jesus. For some reason, that Gospel Lesson is working on me so there it is. If you are looking for prayers for this season, I am here for you. That’s what I meant.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Pandemic Liturgy for Advent. It is a complete liturgy centered around a series of worship videos with some things left open for you to customize to your context.

If you are looking for more prayers, be sure to check out RevGalBlogPals Worship Words updated each and every week. I will look forward to sharing in that collaboration and you can look for my words on Advent 4 but I really love this collection of voices. Use these gifts. I also commend to you the work of LiturgyLink which includes some of my older prayers. There’s a search bar on the left to find the particular Sunday you need. You might also check the archive of News from My Kitchen to find a few other wonders I found. (Click on the previous link and then click on the red View Letter Archive.)

I can’t resist not sharing SALT Project’s Advent Candle Lighting Litanies. I just think that everything they do is gorgeous and I’m so excited my little Texas church sent me a blessing box with some of their materials for Advent. I know there are other great candle lighting liturgies out there and I’ll attempt to link to them on Instagram. You can find me @pandemic.prayers.

Oh, but I also want to share one more from the amazing Theresa Cho who shared this At-Home Advent Ritual Set last week. It’s just stunning. Download it even if it’s just for you.

You might also wander over to YouTube which I never thought I’d spend so much time on before the pandemic where I am always adding songs to my playlists for Advent Music and Christmas Music.

I created a few resources for this season that are unique including Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies. It is an outdoor meditation that wanders through Advent into Epiphany. You probably want to opt for the shorter path if you’re just finding it now but it includes an outdoor Christmas Eve service so you could check that off your list.

I also created a group discussion guide based on the devotional that I had written years ago to explore the grief that is so palpable in the third wave of this %$#!@ pandemic. And just so you don’t have to go searching for it, you can find all the info for Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days by following that link.

If you are planning ahead to Blue Christmas or Longest Night, I have something in the works for you. If you cannot wait, this Pandemic Liturgy for All Saints Day could be adapted. Unless you already used it in November and then you’ll have to wait for what is yet to come or find one of the other gifts that other talented souls are offering in yet another pandemic holy season. Remember how we thought it would just be Easter? That was funny.

If you are planning even further ahead, you might want to use Lessons and Carols for Coronatide for Christmas Eve. I really recommend it for the First Sunday of Christmas — not only because I’m working on something else for Christmas Eve but also because it gives you a break from preaching and extends the joy of this season. We need some joy. We need lots of joy. Also, you have the option of the outdoor Christmas Eve service from Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies unless you are in a northern climate where there is already three feet of snow, then that’s the worst idea ever. If you are not in that category and want just the Christmas Eve service and not the whole bundle, shoot me a note.

In these four weeks, I’m going to write two more liturgies for the Advent and Christmas season. I might even write one for Epiphany. I have a rough idea on that one where the others are already drafted. I’ll be sending out the next edition of News from My Kitchen including some ingredients for your worship in the season of Epiphany and Lent. I plan to return to weekly prayers after Christmas.

This is a busy season when it is not a pandemic. This is a time of year full of sweet memories and time honored traditions and all of those things will look and feel different this year. I know you will hear this from members of our community. They will lament, but I’m going to hold the space for you, dear pastors, because I know that you are carrying some sadness about this season too. Laura Stephens-Reed named this well way back in September. You are doing an amazing thing right now, dear pastors. You are offering wonder, light and hope even if you do not feel those things yourself.

You are light. I promise you that.

Pandemic Prayers for Proper 29, Thanksgiving and Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies Release

I have already moved into Advent. I made the leap. The Christmas carols have been turned on though I’m refusing to put the tree until after Thanksgiving. It feels like it has been Advent for months already though, doesn’t it? Still, the huge uptick in COVID-19 cases across this nation mean that any worship plans to be together have most likely changed…. again.

My dear friend and pastor at my sweet Texas church wanted to provide something different. Something that allowed the community to experience this season in a new way while still being connected to the physical space of the church, even if that physical space was outside in the garden, outdoor chapel and labyrinth instead of inside the sanctuary. She asked me to help and so I’m thrilled to finally release Keeping Watch Under Pandemic Skies for all of the changed plans of 2020.

I’m really excited about how this turned out and hope that it might be a blessing to all of your changed plans. It’s meant to be simple though there is a bit of legwork in getting yard signs set up along the two different paths you create on your church property. The meditations unfold over Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons with music, reflections, prayers and actions to take. I’ve included sample yard signs in the bundle and even an outdoor Christmas Eve service. Order your bundle here.

I will be taking a break from writing weekly prayers in Advent so you won’t see new prayers for weekly worship here next week, but I do have a few other things up my sleeve so be sure to sign up for my News from My Kitchen so you don’t miss out. That said, I have a prayer for this week. It’s not my favorite but it’s something for the weird cacophony of this Sunday. It feels like too much to me every year. Too many things at once as we try to honor the Reign of Christ, Reformation Sunday and the end of the church calendar. It’s too much especially when I just want to bellow into the unknown future.

I want to know what will be. I’m hoping that the hatred and contempt so embedded in our national life right now will change. I’m longing for hearts to change and hoping that God will be known in new and wonderful ways. I’m hoping for a vaccine but hesitant to name that prayer too loudly.

Prayer for the Wondering
Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46

O God, tell us what can be
where we divided 
and separated 
like sheep from the goats.

On the right 
and on the left,
we need blessing
and grace.

Our foundations 
have been shaken. 
We never imagined
that this would be
our reality. Here we are, 
O God, wondering what 
could be. Speak to us
in sacred story
and modern parable
so that we can see
your place in every thing.  
We need to 
know that you
are in every thing, 
O God. Fill our jagged
edges and open questions 
with your presence
so that we can 
wonder what will 
be with you. Amen.

At the same time, I’m thinking about gratitude because that’s supposed to be something we are feeling this month. Maybe that’s for only when we are not in the third wave of a global pandemic. My first call was in Maine that marked that occasion with joy of pilgrims. We know better now, I hope. We are working harder than ever at learning from our mistakes and our implicit bias. I think that requires a new language of gratitude that is not tied to that childhood tale of strangers becoming friends around a table of abundance. We will be isolating this year. We won’t be with our families. Gratitude can’t be found in the familiar. At least for me, it’s a little bit sassier.

Prayer for Pandemic Gratitude
Inspired by Deuteronomy 8:7-18 and  2 Corinthians 9:6-15

O God, bring us 
to that good land 
full of your living water
and the abundance of 
good things. Bring us 
to that place where
we might be full 
and satisfied
because 
this nagging feeling 
is exhausting. 

This constant
agonizing feeling
that nothing will 
get better and 
nobody cares 
because we can't 
agree on what love
looks like now
just needs to stop.

We are not cheerful.
Don't ask that
of us, O God,
because we don't
have that in us. 
Sorry. It's true.
Skip ahead 
to the part 
where we 
give to the poor
and multiply the seeds
for the farmers 
and bread bakers
except that we've confused
what we can do in this 
great and terrible 
pandemic wilderness 
with what you can do. 

Remind us 
that gratitude
doesn't have to
turn over every table
but only had to turn 
our hearts 
to notice the indescribable
wonder of living in your love.
O God, with every
breath in our bodies,
help us to live 
in our love
enough to praise
you with thanksgiving.
Amen.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week, dear pastors. I’m praying for you as always.

Pandemic Liturgy for Advent

If you read my newsletter, you may have already clicked over to these painting advent videos and wondered what might be done with them. I started thinking about them again last week as I drove over the mountains here in West Texas listening to someone at the local university imagine how art might be shared during homecoming. She made the statement that artists were still sculpting, painting, composing and scripting while in isolation. Somehow that struck me.

It made me wonder about all of the angst that I felt reading about THE GREAT THINGS that people were going to do in lockdown when I was just trying not to go insane raising two toddlers. It also made me wonder about what creative edges are missing for us in this season apart, especially as we dare to imagine the creative forces that come together with such force in the Prologue of John. I wanted to create a simple liturgy that would lead through these four Sundays where preaching would be completely optional. Inspired by these evolving paintings, I wanted to make a space for our creative hope.

The first video is the only one that is uploaded to YouTube and so it is embedded below. The following videos appear as links. All four videos can be downloaded for free here. A donation to Level Ground Mennonite Church is strongly encouraged for this gift.

First Sunday of Advent

Opening Prayer
Inspired by Mark 13:24-37

Come, O God,
into the deep hues
of wonder. Brush
beside us with brilliant
yellow because in
these days it only feels dark
With impossibility.
So dark that the moon
does not glow and
we do not know
what will happen.
We wait.
We wonder
and we wait.

Waiting Song

Lighting the Advent Candles

Reading from Scripture Isaiah 64:1-9
Prayer for the Waiting

O God, we are waiting
for your creative spark
to ignite us
and transform us.

We are waiting for
your healing and comfort
for lives taken by the coronavirus
for the damage done
to our earth
and the violence
has ripped through
too many communities.
O God, we wait in hope.

We are waiting for
your justice
to sway the rich and powerful
to care for the poor,
the lonely, the orphaned
and the immigrant
but also know
that our hearts and hands
must act for change.
O God, we wait in peace.

We are waiting for
the whole world
to tilt away from
death and destruction
toward play
and imagination.
O God, we wait in joy.

We are waiting for
love to come
remind us
again that it does not
require any talent to
do you work.
O God, we wait with love.

Help us, O God,
to paint and dance
to sing and scribble
to use our hands
to create your realm
even as we wait.
Amen.

Waiting Song

Closing Prayer
Inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Do not quench
our spirits, O God.
Do not limit
our creativity
but dare us
to rejoice always.
Call us to prayer
again and again
as we try to hold
onto what is good
and filled with wonder.
May we be surprised
our hands can do
as we watch and wait.
Amen.

Second Sunday of Advent

Opening Prayer

Come, O God,
and look at the mess
we have made.
Look at the trash
full of crumpled paper
and frustrated scribbles.
We wait, O God,
to summon the courage
to find beauty
in what feels so broken.
We wait, O God. We wait.

Waiting Song

Lighting the Advent Candles

Reading from Scripture Isaiah 40:1-11

Peace Video Download

Prayer for the Waiting

O God, we are waiting
for your creative spark
to ignite us
and transform us.

We are waiting for
your healing and comfort
for lives taken by the coronavirus
for the damage done
to our earth
and the violence
has ripped through
too many communities.
O God, we wait in hope.

We are waiting for
your justice
to sway the rich and powerful
to care for the poor,
the lonely, the orphaned
and the immigrant
but also know
that our hearts and hands
must act for change.
O God, we wait in peace.

We are waiting for
the whole world
to tilt away from
death and destruction
toward play
and imagination.
O God, we wait in joy.

We are waiting for
love to come again
and remind us
again that it does not
require any talent to
do you work.
O God, we wait with love.

Help us, O God,
to paint and dance
to sing and scribble
to use our hands
to create your realm
even as we wait.
Amen.

Waiting Song

Closing Prayer
Inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Do not quench
our spirits, O God.
Do not limit
our creativity
but dare us
to rejoice always.
Call us to prayer
again and again
as we try to hold
onto what is good
and filled with wonder.
May we be surprised
our hands can do
as we watch and wait.
Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent

Opening Prayer

Come, O God,
to bring color
to our world. Come
into the chaos of creation
to paint new wonders
in this world.
We wait for you,
O God. We wait.

Waiting Song

Lighting the Advent Candles

Reading from Scripture Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Joy Video Download

Prayer for the Waiting

O God, we are waiting
for your creative spark
to ignite us
and transform us.

We are waiting for
your healing and comfort
for lives taken by the coronavirus
for the damage done
to our earth
and the violence
has ripped through
too many communities.
O God, we wait in hope.

We are waiting for
your justice
to sway the rich and powerful
to care for the poor,
the lonely, the orphaned
and the immigrant
but also know
that our hearts and hands
must act for change.
O God, we wait in peace.

We are waiting for
the whole world
to tilt away from
death and destruction
toward play
and imagination.
O God, we wait in joy.

We are waiting for
love to come again
and remind us
again that it does not
require any talent to
do you work.
O God, we wait with love.

Help us, O God,
to paint and dance
to sing and scribble
to use our hands
to create your realm
even as we wait.
Amen.

Waiting Song

Closing Prayer
Inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Do not quench
our spirits, O God.
Do not limit
our creativity
but dare us
to rejoice always.
Call us to prayer
again and again
as we try to hold
onto what is good
and filled with wonder.
May we be surprised
our hands can do
as we watch and wait.
Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Opening Prayer

Come, O God,
reveal your dreams
in our muddied palettes
and the layers of paint.
Help us to see
With your heart
how much is possible.
Color our hope
with bright red
ribbons of compassion and love.
We wait, O God. We wait.

Waiting Song

Lighting the Advent Candles

Reading from Scripture Luke 1:26-38

Love Video Download

Prayer for the Waiting

O God, we are waiting
for your creative spark
to ignite us
and transform us.

We are waiting for
your healing and comfort
for lives taken by the coronavirus
for the damage done
to our earth
and the violence
has ripped through
too many communities.
O God, we wait in hope.

We are waiting for
your justice
to sway the rich and powerful
to care for the poor,
the lonely, the orphaned
and the immigrant
but also know
that our hearts and hands
must act for change.
O God, we wait in peace.

We are waiting for
the whole world
to tilt away from
death and destruction
toward play
and imagination.
O God, we wait in joy.

We are waiting for
love to come again
and remind us
again that it does not
require any talent to
do you work.
O God, we wait with love.

Help us, O God,
to paint and dance
to sing and scribble
to use our hands
to create your realm
even as we wait.
Amen.

Waiting Song

Closing Prayer
Inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Do not quench
our spirits, O God.
Do not limit
our creativity
but dare us
to rejoice always.
Call us to prayer
again and again
as we try to hold
onto what is good
and filled with wonder.
May we be surprised
our hands can do
as we watch and wait.
Amen.

This is not a complete liturgy. You already noticed that, dear preachers. You noticed the repetition of repeated prayers week after week which might calm the chaos of this year. You noticed it was short and wondered if it might fill your usual hour.

Because this isn’t a full liturgy, you have options particularly for the lighting of the Advent candles. You might choose this poetry-filled liturgy by Martha Spong or opt for this candle lighting that captures the full lament of 2020 by Maren Tirabassi.

You might choose familiar hymns from your favorites for congregational singing for the Waiting Songs. There are so many gems in our hymnals for this time of year but in this new loooong season of coronatide, you might choose from these less familiar tunes:

I have other complete liturgies in the works for the four Sundays of Advent, Blue Christmas and Christmas Eve. I’m also working on a newsletter looking toward Epiphany if you’d like to sign up for News from My Kitchen. That’s where those other full liturgies will appear before I offer them here on my blog. I’ll share more about that soon but I pray this might spark your creative hope for this season.

You are, as always, in my prayers, dear pastors.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Pandemic Days

Several years ago, I created a devotional for the grieving and brokenhearted. I called it Twinkly Lights in Blue Days. It’s sat there in my kitchen for anyone that might have wanted it or needed in the years that followed.

Grief is close to my heart. My mother died of breast cancer before anyone really understood the disease that affects so many women. I was seven years old then.

The shadows of that loss have cast eerie shadows over the blue days of this pandemic. Something has felt familiar and terrifying. Something that I have known deep in my soul since I was a small child but was told over and over again never to discuss. Grief was always taboo.

Grief still is taboo. It remains one of these mysterious paths after tragedy that is accomplished by steps and stages. It is what resilient people overcome. I believe that we will get there but that discomfort we are feeling is grief. It is not going away quickly. It’s sticking around and insisting that we come to understand it differently than we did in all of those losses before. It is different. The losses keep coming. The death toll increases. The changes and adjustments we have been forced to make to better care for our neighbors and community keep adding up.

There is sorrow and heartache that needs to be shared.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Small Group Discussion Guide for the Grieving and Brokenhearted seeks to encourage that conversation. It is an adaptation of those words that I wrote for the devotional, but this version seeks to bring a group of people from church, book club or a unique group to this Advent season together weekly to share in honest reflection about what grieves them.

Words from sacred scripture, a meditative reflection and questions to ponder are provided in these pages to explore before the group meets. A simple discussion format is provided that includes written prayers and more discussion questions for the group to use as they wander together through these blue pandemic days. Though I assume most of these groups will meet via Zoom or Google Meet, I opted to not provide instructions on how to share space in a group in these unique formats. (I presume most people have figured that out by now.) I did, however, provide some hints on how best to share in vulnerable honesty so that all are honored and valued. I also included some books, essays and podcasts for the group to continue the conversation as the Spirit moves.

Like the devotional version, this discussion guide leaves room for wonder. It concludes before the baby is born.There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

I pray it is blessing for those that are brave enough to wander into these blue pandemic days and share the brokenness that feels so vast. Or if a group discussion is too overwhelming for the particular season of grief you find yourself in, you can find an updated version of the devotional here.

I pray so many many blessings into this Advent season of grief, lament and hope. May there be hope and love. We need both.

Insistent Hope

It is the first Sunday of Advent and I sat in church.

I sat in that pew with my baby bouncing on my lap to hear hope insisted upon. Maybe hope needs to come that way. Maybe it will only come by our stubborn determination or it’ll only be something that dances through our daydreams, but it felt forced.

It felt like hope was being poured over me, like it was drowning me. It wouldn’t dare let me catch my breath as it made itself known in the ministries of this particular church. I love this church. It’s the first church in so many moves that I’ve felt at home. I feel like I belong and this is a strange new world for this preacher and military spouse. It is good. It might even feel like hope.

But hope is not something to be named on the first Sunday of Advent. It’s the stuff of possibility and imagination. It lives over there in that land of moving on and getting over. It’s the thing we are never quite sure we’ll find though we’ll fight like hell to keep believing is out there.

Hope is that kind of thing for me. Advent is that kind of place, a liminal space between what was and what is. An open expanse where there is room to dream and curse and lament and wonder. Mostly, I think it’s too short. Four Sundays is not enough though I was reminded just yesterday that historically there were six Sundays in Advent as there are in Lent. (I think that they did actually teach that to me in seminary and I managed to forget it anyway.) That same wise woman pointed out that we need this space. We can’t jump into the celebration of Christmas like our culture seems to want us to do. We can’t live in the hope because we must ask ourselves, in her words:

How do we assess if we’re self-medicating, erasing, avoiding the realities of the biblical moment leading up to Christmas by skipping the critical part of the story?

What if the part about Mary exclaiming that her Son would tear down injustice and literally withhold food from those who had grown fat while others starved…what if that part is in the bible for the people who are comfortable to be awakened to their role in addressing their fellow human’s suffering, not just as an act of charity but as an act of systemic restructuring?

What if the season of Advent is about people with stuff having to do without, to literally feel what longing and absence and need are, to cultivate empathy, the way our Muslim siblings are supposed to feel deeper empathy for the poor during their fasting season of Ramadan?

What if Advent’s point right now is to wake us up and shake us loose from the illusion that democracy actually addresses the needs of the poorest, the darkest skinned, the longest on this land when it was designed for the wealthiest, the lightest skinned and the newest arrivals of a certain type?

I sat in church and wondered if there is any hope in shaking us loose from our illusions if we go right along and start naming all those things that remind us of God’s hope. I wrote the liturgy for this Sunday. There is a piece of this liturgy, as there will be in the three weeks to follow, in which we’re asked to wonder how we are collaborating with God in realizing hope and peace. I want to live into this stuff too. I want to roll up my sleeves and do my part but there is still part of me that approaches this season asking for a break.

I grimace too. I hear my privilege in uttering these words. Hold me accountable to all of that because I think it matters as much as our white churches fail to nuance the promise that a light shines in the darkness, as if darkness can only be bad.

Still, it’s that tiny light that so many of us are holding onto. The wax is burning our fingers. The wick is getting shorter and shorter but we’re not going to put that candle down. We need it. We need that damn thing to shine maybe even brighter than it did last year. That’s what people in the pews are doing as the church enters into its new year. They’re thinking back over the past few months. They’re recounting all that has happened in the past year and gritting their teeth to face another would-be celebration where they’re told what hope looks like again.

In our American culture, that Christmas hope centers around the family. After all, it is what our economy values most. It’s why marriage in queer communities took so long to win. It’s how our entire tax system in structured. In this idealized family, all the relatives get along and want to be together. (This is actually true for my family and it’s still hard for me to be away for the holidays, even if my vocation requires me to work on those high holy days.) But, in our death-denying culture, it also assumes that there has been no loss. There’s no struggle to imagine this holiday without those that first made it magical. There’s no space for that.

It’s that space I craved this morning. To bellow with the prophets and lament with the saints. To wonder about this strange teaching where one is taken and another left. To me, that’s not the Second Coming. That’s just living with grief because grief has been redefined all over again this year.

Three years ago, I sat in another pew with blood pooling between my legs from a miscarriage. I sobbed through the expectant hope of that morning. The familiar hymns stuck in the back of my throat as they had in years past. Grief is not unfamiliar. It’s not unchartered land but it’s always changing. It’s never just the death of my mother but that loss piled on by so much more. This year, I sat there pissed off that I had to pray about another cancer diagnosis even if we don’t actually know it’s cancer yet. This time, it’s my Dad that hope is stuck on.

I don’t want to hear promises of what hope we’ve seen. I don’t need to have hope insisted upon but only for it to be named as a place we might live one day. One day, after all the cancer is gone and racism has ended. Justice hasn’t come and so I’ll still be waiting on hope.

Christmas will be when it comes, when that hope really comes.

 

New Traditions for Our Family

My husband is an atheist.

That’s right. I am an ordained minister in the Christian Church and I married a man who could care less about anything remotely related to God.

He will be quick to amend that. He will say that he does care. He cares because I care but it’s not quite the same. It’s not the same as having a partner seated next to you every Sunday in church. It’s not the same as having a spouse that shares some similar experience from childhood. He didn’t have that. Mine was weird.

My father is also an atheist. Or at least, at one time, he said he could care less about God. It was shortly after my mom had died. They’d fallen in love, had two children and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. They’d been been married eleven years when she died. It was not the ending he would have imagined. It certainly wasn’t what he wanted. He had every right to be mad at God, but that wasn’t how I dealt with it. Instead of rejecting God, I snuck off to church.

It was, as I tell those in the churches I’ve served, my young rebellion.

Marrying my husband was not a rebellion. He just happens to be an atheist. He’s an atheist who chose to marry a Christian pastor and regularly jokes about the bake sales he’ll host as a pastor’s husband when he retires from the Army. There are a lot of things that make our marriage wonderful, but Christmas can be hard.

For you see, I adore Christmas. It starts with Advent. It’s a season that echoes with my soul every single year. It calls me into greater attention with the needs of this broken world and forces me to focus on what I can do to bring hope, peace, joy and especially love into a world that needs so much more of these things, but I love the decorations. I love the lights lining the roof of my neighbor’s home. I love the gift giving and the twinkly tree that I turn on again the minute I wake up.

I love the candles held in the darkened sanctuary as we sing Silent Night. I love the cookies. Well, I love the cookies when I’m not pastoring a church and there are just too many cookies. I love the carols and sappy movies. I love the mall Santas. I love every bit of it.

My husband doesn’t love it. He doesn’t hate it but it doesn’t have the same magic for him. He doesn’t get excited like I do. That would be hard to accomplish for anyone.

He did, however, agree to raise our children in my faith. We talked about it before we got married and it’s still a conversation we continue to share. There are things that come up, things that neither one of us ever expected but things that we need to keep in the ongoing conversation of how we might try to raise the one kid we do have and any other children that might become a part of our family.

So we keep talking. We keep talking because it’s important.

We’ve made some decisions already. We decided we’re not traveling for the holidays. Our children will know a lot of change in their young lives. There will be lots of moves and no matter where we might call home, we want them to have an experience of the familiar. We want them to know that these are the things that our family does.

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Our first Easter Vigil

Earlier this year, we made a list. We picked all of the days that we would want to celebrate and how we might cherish these special days in our family. We talked about what traditions were a part of our younger years and what really matters to us. It’s a work in progress. We both know it will change but we started with an Easter Vigil. I explained the tradition and the big parts of the liturgy to my husband and then suggested a redacted version that might work for our family. Of course, it involves lighting a big fire and food. He was won over and it was wonderful.

I opened the document earlier today to remember what we intended for Christmas. It was blank and perhaps that is right. It’s our first Christmas where it is just us. It’s the first year where we get to try new things and see what fits our family.

Truthfully, the Easter Vigil is the only one we really have figured out. There are other things we want to do, but our baby girl isn’t old enough yet. Service is important to both of us and it’s something we want to share with our children, but there isn’t much that a one-year old can do to serve. There are other traditions that I know will emerge once we all start sitting down to dinner together at the same time, but neither my husband or I have our act together to sit down at 5 o’clock to eat together.

There are things that I hope will happen but I don’t really know what will happen. I don’t know how these practices will evolve in our family. I don’t know what will end up sticking and that’s hard for me. I love a good plan.

So it is with Christmas. I’ve made plans. I’ve planned a menu and wrapped presents. I made elf hats like my great-grandmother made us all wear on Christmas Eve though we will wear them on Christmas Day. We are going out to dinner on Christmas Eve and there will be the cinnamon rolls that I loved as a kid on Christmas morning. I’ve prepared for the details but not for the wonder.

That’s what always surprises me on Christmas. There is something mysterious and magical that happens. That’s what I want to emerge from all of these new traditions that we make for our family but it’s hard to plan for magic. It’s something that comes. It surprises and hopefully delights. My job is to wait for it and to be ready when it comes.

 

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days

Jan Richardson lost her beloved husband Gary during Advent. It was more sudden than the wars and rumors of war that the gospel Mark hints it could be. Nobody saw it coming and the grief lingered for many more seasons. In her online Advent devotional two years later, Jan shared that she was looking for something different to accompany her through Advent. She searched for resources on Advent and mourning and found them all to be instructive. None of them invited her into the mystery and longing of these days.

All of these years later, that has stayed with me.

It’s that something different I’ve wanted too. The closest thing that I’ve found to the apocalyptic chaos that I feel every Advent is in Jan Richardson’s own words. And so, when whatever other devotional I’ve chosen for the year insists on my being merry and bright, it’s to Jan Richardson’s Night Visions I return. This proves more challenging with every move since I can’t always find it.

It’s frustrating to hear the familiar words of the prophets plead for comfort and hope and that maybe things will change when every single inspired word in this season seems to lean too far into the future. The prophets aren’t there yet. Things haven’t changed but there is a chance that it won’t always be like this. It hasn’t happened yet. No messenger has come. No baby has been born. We’re still waiting.

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Order your copy 

They point to the heavens above and trace the movements of the twinkly stars in the sky. It’s continued in each and every moment these familiar text tell us to beware. Keep alert. Pay attention, they remind us which is really all you can do when your heart has been broken. You wait for something to change. You notice every single thing that reminds you of what has been lost.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days: An Advent Devotional for the Grieving and Brokenhearted wanders through the mystery of sacred scripture. Each day, starting on December 2, there are new words to inspire and challenge both from scripture and from my own broken heart.

You’ll find in these pages words to welcome and suggestions for how to pray in these blue days. You’ll find some written prayers but not too many. You’ll hear hints of my story of loss but you’ll also hear from some of those I trust most in daring to talk about how this really feels, including Joan Didion, Kate Bowler, CS Lewis and Jan Richardson. (You’re not surprised by that last one, I think.)

After thirty years of grieving my mother’s death and ten years of pastoral ministry, I know that our hearts break in thousands of different ways. I don’t dare name all of the many ways that Advent can be hard. The fact is that it is not the most wonderful time of year for everyone so I wrote these words for those that don’t want to sing carols. I wrote who the lights don’t shine brightly. Their days are blue. Their hearts are broken and it’s enough just to turn on the twinkly lights and spend just a little time thinking about how different this year is.

I don’t dare suggest that these words will make anyone feel better. Mostly because I think that’s a crappy thing to say to a grieving person. In the name of all that is holy, don’t ever say that to me. Instead, I wanted to know if I could find words to illustrate the deep, dark blueness that is Advent for me. I wanted to know if I could paint a picture of grief that fit the prophets.

Twinkly Lights in Blue Days concludes on December 24 full of wonder. No baby is born. There aren’t even any shepherds in the fields, but there’s a feeling that something could happen. Something might happen. That’s what the prophets dreamed. That’s what I hope every day my grief feels too heavy to carry. It won’t always be like this. God is here. Somehow, God is still here.

If you are interested in wandering with these blue days with me, I hope you’ll find this resource I’ve worked so hard on to be easily downloadable herePlease note that you’ll find the updated version by following this link that follows the calendar from December 1st to December 24th. It also includes a new resource to continue your grief journey. You may be interested to see the other resources I’ve written in From My Kitchen.

Sweet Baby Jesus

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” — Matthew 24:36, 40-44

When I heard these words intoned in worship on Sunday, it was in the hope that something is coming, something good. It was not just a nod to the opening scene in West Side Story in which Tony sings this song. We actually heard him sing this hope in a video clip upon the screen. I do not doubt that something is coming. I am just not quite certain that it will be good. Like those that first heard this wisdom spoken by Jesus, I am suspicious of those that promise goodness or greatness for that matter.

And yet, in church this past Sunday, we were encouraged to consider the good that God has done. There were hints toward the past, some distant memory of which no one quite remembers the details. Some promise of what was but doesn’t feel quite relevant to the present moment. Apocalypse is more than a promise. It’s more than a memory or even a possibility but that despite the fact that everything seems to be going to hell, we can dare to believe that it won’t always be like this. Somehow, by God and by our own stubborn might, we will transform this mess. Change will come.

Tony can sing with all of his heart about something coming, but this year it feels no better than singing about the long expected birth of sweet baby Jesus. I know. I know. That is the tune of Advent. We sing about that birth. We hope for it. We need it.

Tbirth_final_cover_rehis year, I need a different tune. I need a different song and Elizabeth Hagan is the pastor that I need most. I have been honored to know Elizabeth through The Young Clergy Women Project. We’ve read each other’s blogs. We’ve cheered on each other’s ministries and now I want to offer her new book from Chalice Press to every pastor that ever dares to speak of hope in Advent.

How many times do I have to hear about the innocence of a sweet little baby as the answer to all that breaks our hearts? How many sermons must we hear before it hits us that this one metaphor cannot and will not speak to all that needs to be changed?

I need more than that sweet baby. Don’t get me wrong. I need me some Jesus, but it can’t be the only metaphor for this Advent. There has to be another way to illustrate that possibility than that itty bitty baby. There has to be something else.

I confess to you that I haven’t actually read Elizabeth’s book. If I had, I may have already found that metaphor. I have instead read an excerpt from her book and I’ve followed the ministry Elizabeth has continued to provide on her blog and on Patheos. What I have heard in these words is testimony. Elizabeth is telling the truth. She’s pointing toward the real hope of Advent. It is more than an attitude or an aspiration. It’s not enough to tell each other to try harder in prayer or sheer will, but true hope is more than the promise of something good. It isn’t always a song that we sing but might be more clearly understood by our protests.

Advent is not just a time to light candles and deck the halls. It’s a time to imagine what could be. It is a time to admit that things haven’t worked out as we might have hoped. Things are far worse and yet something is being revealed. Somehow, we are being changed. Transformation will come but it might not come with all of our tender ideas of a sweet little baby. It might not capture all of our ideals of parenthood. It may not even come with the pangs of birth but if we keep awake, as it says in the Gospel of Matthew, we might find what Elizabeth proclaims to be Advent’s hope:

Allow God to meet you wherever you are.

Open your heart to the coming of something unexpected.

And most of all, say yes to those urges that could only come from the Spirit.

It’s what the season is all about. Really.

Better things are coming. Just wait for it.

It’s a testimony I need to hear this year and so I’m adding Birthed to my Christmas List. Maybe you will too.

The Birth of Hope

I’ve been thinking a lot about hope — where it comes from and how we find it. Because it seems hard to find right now. Any proclamation of hope feels nonsensical. It feels trite and ridiculous. Or worse, it’s so obscure and distant that it’s impossible to claim. I find this unacceptable and it seems to be most of what I hear. What good is the possibility of hope if you can’t imagine it in your own life? What good is the promise of good news if it seems to come to everyone else but you? 

I would say: diddly squat. And yes, there are terrible things in the news. There is so much violence and destruction but it’s not the headlines that have me thinking about this possibility of hope. It’s the church I’m pastoring. I am their interim pastor. I am walking with them through a season of ministry where everything is uncertain and unknown. I’m wondering with them about what ministry looks like in a rural community where nothing much seems to change. It’s all fine and good to say that there is hope for the church. I would tend to agree. There is lots of hope for the church universal — but what does it look like for this teeny tiny church in the countryside? 

I don’t tend to post my sermons here but this one is still working on me. I’m not writing anymore. I’m not editing the words that I preached this morning from Micah 5:2-5a and Hebrews 10:10-15 but they are challenging me. We’ve spent most of Advent in this church asking questions inspired from the prophets. This week is no different. There is a question at the heart of this sermon that I’m still trying to answer. It isn’t resolved yet. Perhaps because Christmas hasn’t come yet. There is part of me that wants so very much to expand on those last two paragraphs because it feels like there is more there. There is more to be said as hope is born. 

So here is a sermon about that hope that is coming.lights-788903_1920

 

Imagine that time before the old agreement, before there was a new plan to replace the old. Imagine, if you can, such a time and such a place where there is no need for anything new. There is no technology or theology to be improved. It is just the people in their old ways looking for love, hope and peace.

Imagine a time when you and your clan are without a home. You’ve been pushed out and left in the wilderness. You can’t go to the temple. You can’t worship as you always have but it’s what you want most. When everything is so new and terrifying, you and your clan want nothing more than to worship.

So it was in the Diaspora of the Jews. They couldn’t get to the temple — the place where all worship happened, the place where God lived. And so, they did something different. They didn’t abide by the blood sacrifices that had made a comeback in those days when Mary and Joseph are making their way to Bethlehem. They had to do something else in their exile. They had to find another way to worship. So, the rabbis led the people in worship as together in the wilderness “they offered prayers, songs and offerings in synagogue worship services.”

Did their worship change because their situation changed? Did their relationship with God change because that was God’s will? Or is this just how change happens? Do our old habits always give way to new ways of worshipping and living and hoping? Aren’t we always hoping for more?

Micah speaks to exactly that desire. To displaced, confused, wandering people who know more violence than peace, he gives them hope for something more. Something more than what they’ve known. Something more than what they’ve seen.

So that, as Nancy Taylor says, “Micah captures the ache with which we live each day and the hope that is in us for a future that only God can deliver.”

Only God can deliver this future that is more than what we’ve known and more than what we’ve seen. Only God can imagine such a future without being too bogged down by our sins. As the birth of hope is so very close, coming we hope this very week, we might not want to talk about our sins. But, we must. We have to talk about this for just a moment because these five verses in Hebrews demand it.

Imagine that time before the old agreement, before there was a new plan to replace the old. Imagine, if you can, such a time and such a place where there is no need for anything new except for the fact that everything has changed. Nothing is as it was so that everything around us is changing. And we bellyache. We moan. We protest. We demand God for hope and this is our sin.

As Sister Simone Campbell told Krista Tippett on American Public Radio’s OnBeing, “our sin is our obsession with security.” We have so convinced ourselves that “everything ought to work out perfectly for us. That we ought to have every conceivable drop of oil ever that we’d ever need any time. That we have to have electricity…” she goes on. There is a long list of those things that we need and want. We think that our hope will come from these things, these little guarantees from the long list of our needs and wants. But, hope does not come from a place of security. Hope comes, instead, from the wild surprises that God continues to point us toward.

So, let’s get specific. The prophet Micah points us toward Bethlehem. He pinpoints a place on the map where no one ever thought anything would ever happen. Still, the prophet directs our attention to a specific place — right there, he says, in Bethlehem — and tells us to look for that something more that we’ve always wanted. He zeroes in on our aching longing, turns us around and pushes us toward specifics. Not vague possibilities or warm feelings. No, he says that from this exact place, hope will come. A leader will come “who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

So, let’s get specific about where and when and even how we see hope being born. For that hope will not only be born in a stable in Bethlehem. Micah assures our displaced, confused, wandering hearts that this hope —God’s hope — was not a one-shot deal. It is a hope that is always coming to birth. Again and again, God surprises us. God’s hope shows up in unexpected places asking us to believe that it’s possible.

Imagine that hope has a name and a face. Imagine that it have a body. Maybe even your body. Imagine that you could be faithfully obedient to that hope within you. And that it could so change what you know to be true and what you see in the world around you, that hope within your body. Or maybe not your body. Maybe you don’t feel it inside you but it has another name and another face.

Yes. Let’s get specific. Let’s pinpoint the exact where that hope is being born right now. Let’s not talk about vague possibilities or warm feelings but ask ourselves this: where exactly is hope being born right now?

Does hope have a particular name and face? Does this hope being born have a body that doesn’t fit with our expectations? Is hope in this time and place found in a Syrian refugee or the Mexican immigrant wandering in the desert as Mary and Joseph did so many years ago? Is the hope that might change all that we know being born in Paris right now? Or will it be found in a Muslim woman’s eyes blinking through the hijab that otherwise hides her face? Or is hope coming right here on Ridge Road?

Get specific. Pinpoint exactly what it is that you God see doing for God has promised that this hope is not a one-shot deal. It is always coming to birth. The question is: where do you see the surprise of hope?