Monday, December 31, 2012

Trusting Enough to Let Go

"My wife was in the best mood possible."

These words concluded a story that seemed stressful at best. My friend told me how he recently sent his wife and two young kids off early for the holidays while he remained in Washington to finish another week of work. When my friend dropped his family off at the airport, he left his wife, a two-year-old toddler and a baby who is a few months old standing in line at the ticket counter. Along with these three people of different sizes, there was one stroller, two car seats, one carry-on bag and two suitcases.

It was more than any one person could handle.

When his wife stepped out of the car, she said how she was filled with confidence that someone would help them. She trusted there to be people at each twist and turn who would be willing to carry a child, play with a toddler, hold a bag or pick up a car seat. She stepped into the airport trusting the goodness of humanity. And at the end of the day, his wife described it as one of their best travel days. "My wife was in the best mood possible."

People showed up.

Help was offered.

Bags were carried.

A load was lightened.

I'd like to think of the church as such a place. In my best images of the church, there are people at every twist and turn who are ready to assist - to care for a child, to prepare a meal, to provide a ride, to pay for an unexpected doctor's bill, to help someone move, to be present when everything seems empty, to show up often. And while there are several pockets of incredible care in every congregation, I know we often fall short.

But I also cannot help but to wonder how much I try to carry it all on my own when others are trying to assist.

How much do we try to do by ourselves when a community surrounds us?

And how often do I start a day convinced that there is too much to do that I cannot possibly take time to pray for guidance or ask God for help? How regularly do I turn to God in times of great need before first scheming on my own?

What if we went into each challenging situation trusting there to be someone to help? What if we carried too much because we knew we would not carry it long before someone came to our aid? What if we believed in one who invited us to cast our burdens upon him because he cares for us enough to really leave our worries, our anxieties and our fears with God?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Light in the Darkness






Our spirits have been through much since our Facebook feeds lit with news of a senseless tragedy in a storybook small town in Connecticut. How could any person kill his mother, enter her place of vocation and then kill more than a dozen children? How could anyone be so overcome with evil? Is there any place that is completely safe today?

My tendency yesterday was to go on a rampage about gun control. I hate guns. My father and I have been bantering over gun laws since 1994 when I worked for a Member of Congress who lost hundreds of votes and an election when he voted in support of a ban of semi-automatic handguns. It was during that year when I started making donations to Handgun Control in order to cancel my father's donations to the National Rifle Association. I cannot understand why anyone in our country needs a military style assault weapon tucked inside a cabinet in a closet in the basement or placed beneath the bed. Eighteen years have passed since I learned of Congress' inability to make lasting change on gun control, and hundreds of additional lives have been sacrificed and slaughtered since our argument started.

I then glued my eyes to the news, allowing my spirit to be transported to Newtown. I imagined myself as a child who miraculously got out. I thought about what it would be like to be a parent not yet united with a child who I had kissed good-bye less than five hours earlier as I rushed out the door to get to work on time. I sought to think about the twenty-year old person who had the gun - a child himself when I saw his picture for the first time.

And then my thoughts turned to Advent - to this season of waiting and watching for a savior who has come and is coming again. I thought about the mess into which Jesus was born - a borrowed barn in Bethlehem because there was no room for him at the inn. I recalled the words of the prophets of long ago who told all generations of one who was to come and why this one was desperately needed. The words of the prophets are painted amidst a background of darkness of oppression to a people who know violence, unrest, hunger and thirst. And still the prophets proclaim with all their passion that people must hold on. One is coming who will make all things right.

And the one came.

And when he got here he immediately threatened the powers of the day. In the book of Matthew, Herod got word of the birth of Jesus and did everything possible to find Jesus. The wise men told Mary and Joseph of Herod's hot pursuit, and encouraged them to flee to Egypt until Herod died.

We then read words of horror that are often overlooked in the Christmas story. "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under...." (Matthew 2:16).

There is darkness all around the birth of Jesus. Countless kids were killed. And yet, the Savior, the Prince of Peace, the Mighty One survived. And he continues to live and rule today.

His light has been shining into darkness for more than 2000 years. His light has power to penetrate into every place where darkness seems to have a hold - into mental illness, into senseless tragedy, into grief, into loss, into unspeakable sadness. And the darkness has never and will never overcome the light.

Are you trying to find hope in this situation? Are you at a loss in your efforts to make sense of them?

Nothing about what happened yesterday makes sense. It is filled with darkness and evil. But the message of Advent - the reason that thousands of people will gather in churches tomorrow - is that Emmanuel has come. We will sing again tomorrow "O Come O Come Emmanuel." We need him today like never before. It is Emmanuel's life, death, resurrection and promise of his coming again that enables me to find hope in the hopeless, to experience peace in the grief and to know that the light has come and will continue to come.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Seeing the Signs

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in a cloud' with power and great glory...Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times..." (Luke 21:25-36).

We are always looking for a sign.

Some people regularly check their horoscope in the morning, searching for an indication that today will be the day when love will finally come knocking, a job offer will be received, or a dilemma will be solved.

Barren women longing to be pregnant scrutinize other signs. A different kind of cramp, a change in mood, a delayed period can all be seen as signs that God is finally listening.

A young woman in love can look for other signs. "He has not asked me what I want for Christmas. Does that mean he finally purchased a ring." "He was looking at my fingers rather intently. Does he know my size?"

We long for signs. We want to know that some things are changing and other things are staying stable. We long to hear how others are pleased with our performance, a sign that we are successful. We need to hear that life is in order, that things are looking up, that someone is in control.

But what are the signs we seek as followers of Christ? Do we recognize the movement of God in our lives?

I'm not the kind of Christian who regularly looks for a sign that signals how Christ is finally on the way to make all things right. I don't keep my ears open for the sounds of trumpets blowing, and I don't scrutinize weather patterns, comparing them to descriptions like the one above.

But I am the kind of Christian who is longing to see signs of God at work.

And perhaps the signs are all around us.

It's hard to walk into any grocery store during the days that separate Thanksgiving from Christmas without hearing bells ringing. I can't remember ever putting money in the bucket next to the bell. But I wonder how God might use even this sound as a sign - an invitation to ponder how we are invited to be of assistance to someone in need or share the gifts God has given to us with others?

Throughout the day, thoughts of different people regularly enter my mind. There are times when I am thoughtful enough to stop at that moment and make a call, letting someone know I've been thinking of them only to hear someone say, "You have no idea how much I needed to hear from you today." What if I paid more attention to these signs - to these thoughts - considering each one as an invitation to reach out with a phone call or a note of encouragement?

I recently shared communication with someone who shared how he longs to be in a faith community where his gifts are being noticed, named and nurtured. He has gifts to share but the gifts have not always been recognized, let alone put to faithful use. I wonder how God is using this conversation as a sign, a sign of ways in which I can do a better job of noticing and nurturing the gifts of people in our congregation, making sure everyone has a place to serve.

The signs of Christmas are all around us. Brightly lit trees reach toward the sky in parks around us and towards the ceiling of shopping centers far and wide. Wreaths adorn doors, and poles are wrapped in red ribbon. Advertisements fill our inbox and scamper across our screens, beckoning us to consider the perfect Christmas gift.

Still it's easy to miss the main message.

Christ is coming. We are between the time when he arrived in a borrowed barn and when he will come again. In the meantime, he longs to burst into our lives. He longs to dwell within us, tempting us to respond to his never-ending love and amazing grace. He longs to be the reason we act different, think differently, speak differently, give differently, love differently and live differently. He's ready to again be the greatest gift we have ever received.

So what if all these signs were not reminders of how far behind we are when it comes to buying, baking and bagging but instead how far we have to go when it comes to unwrapping the gift of Christ - the gift of Emmanuel who is always with us - the gift of a savior who makes all things new.

Dear Jesus, please open my eyes and ears to how you are at work all around me. Let me see the many ways in which you are trying to capture my attention. Show me how you want to use me this day. Come amongst me. Come inside me. Come and make all things new. Amen.