Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christ's Generous Fullness

From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace
                                                                                                                John 1:16

 Fullness. In the midst of Christmas celebrations, many of us know about fullness. Full schedules, full houses, full stomachs, even full trash cans as boxes and wrapping paper are discarded.

Yet all these are temporary, fleeting expressions of fullness. In fact, they distract us from the Source of true fullness, the Word who became flesh and made his home among us. What our hearts hunger for is not another piece of pie, or more activities or the latest gadget, but this grace upon grace that John can hardly describe. Words are inadequate to capture the utter richness of who Jesus is and what he longs to give to us.

I recall a prayer I heard once, offered by Sister Kathleen Flood at a 5-Day Academy for Spiritual Formation. She prayed, asking God to forgive us for being content with crumbs when God wants to give us the entire loaf. And this is what we do far too often—we grab crumbs, holding onto moldy, dry crumbs when a warm, fragrant, freshly baked loaf is offered to us. Whether we think we are unworthy for such a gift, cannot be vulnerable enough to be a recipient rather than a giver, or simply cannot trust that God loves us so generously, we turn down treasure and hold onto trash.

We choose crumbs whenever we choose fear over love, when we are more concerned with security than with generosity, when we struggle to meet expectations rather than relaxing into freedom to be who God created us to be. We especially do it at Christmas when we substitute shopping, food and materialism—dry crumbs—for the freshness that comes with realizing that we are sons and daughters of God, uniquely loved by our Creator.

Only a few recognized or understood Jesus when he lived among us in skin. Even today, many do not understand that Jesus came to set us free from fear, from imprisoning rules and expectations. Jesus came to show us what love is, in all its warmth, freshness and fragrant goodness. There is no end to his grace and love. It is we who choose to live in scarcity, to eat crumbs.

St. Catherine of Siena expresses the abundance, the fullness of grace in this short poem:

We know nothing until we know everything.

I have no object to defend
for all is of equal value
to me.

I cannot lose anything in this
place of abundance
I found.

If something my heart cherishes
is taken away,

I just say, “Lord, what

And a hundred more

Living in the fullness of grace upon grace, we don’t have to subsist on crumbs, living as if love is a scarce possession. Love begets love, generosity begets generosity and grace is unending and abundant, a fragrant, limitless loaf!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Advent Words

More than any year I can recall, this year I have resonated deeply with the words of Advent. The lectionary texts have inspired me, particularly those that speak of one who will come and make things right, who will overcome evil and bring rest to the weary, who will upend the world’s values of power and influence and bring a kingdom where gentleness and goodness prevail. The recurring encouragement to not be afraid has been what I needed to hear.

Each week as I’ve reflected on the words accompanying the Advent candle for that week—hope, peace, joy and love—the themes have worked their way into my spirit. Daily I’ve considered what they mean for me, particularly with regard to the unsettledness in my life and in the world this year.

And the words of two Advent hymns have been on almost continuous loop in my head: Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus and People, Look East. The first speaks to my own desire to be freed from the fears that arise in difficult times as well as my longing for Christ. The second hymn, People, Look East has been a recent find for me, and, probably because I like birds so much, the third verse has been a favorite:

                Birds, though you long have ceased to build, guard the nest that must be filled.
                Even the hour when wings are frozen, God for fledging time has chosen.
                People, look east and sing today. Love, the bird, is on the way.

The reminder that God comes in unlikely times and seasons encourages me to remain hopeful and watchful, because God doesn’t work in predictable or even reasonable (as we think of reasonable) ways. After all, it was an unwed young woman that God chose to be the mother of Jesus, and an elderly woman was chosen to be the mother of John the Baptist.

When life is difficult, when we earnestly try to live a faithful life only to be misunderstood, criticized or bullied, we truly cry, “Come, Lord Jesus!” When illness, vocational uncertainty, death or broken relationships weigh heavily on us, we long for the coming of a savior to guide us, heal us and comfort us in our sorrow. And even if things are good for us now, we hear the message of Advent for those who are not in an easy stage of life. Savoring the words of Advent prepares us to celebrate Christmas with deep joy and faith, to know that God’s inbreaking in the world changes everything.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mary's Courage

A while back I saw an advertisement for a sermon series about significant Bible stories and people. Most of the characters featured were people who stood up against an evil force or person seemingly more powerful than themselves. We like such stories about David and Goliath, Elijah defeating the prophets of Baal, and Gideon prevailing against the Midianites. Especially in our culture that values power and strength, we love a story about the underdog whose might and courage overcome difficulty.

Mary doesn’t fit into such a stereotype. In fact, one of Mary’s most quotable lines is, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Hers is an attitude of openness and vulnerability. She is consenting to be the unwed mother of Jesus. To the world she would appear to be promiscuous, engaging in sex before marriage, which would be costly to her. Who would believe her story if she tried to explain her pregnancy?

Mary’s courage is not exhibited through might and aggression, but through her willingness to be misunderstood, wrongfully accused and vulnerable. This was no mighty warrior but a teenager, engaged to be married, who said yes to God without asking permission of her parents or her betrothed, Joseph.

Enuma Okoro, author of Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, observes that Mary found a supportive friend in her elderly and pregnant relative Elizabeth. Okoro says that we must be discerning in whom we invite to walk alongside us on our spiritual journeys. Mary and Elizabeth shared a similar faith imagination. They both trusted God’s action and love for them, whereas others might have discouraged them from such risky faith.

Had Mary asked her parents if she should consent to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, they, in an effort to protect her reputation and theirs, likely would have discouraged her. She chose to believe that God would make a way for God’s word to be fulfilled. She was willing to be considered a failure, a disreputable woman because she loved God.

God does not choose to act in ways we consider safe or conventional. God is not bound by moral codes or reputation or our likes, dislikes or fears. God calls us to live lives marked by faith, not fear, by love, not propriety. Mary knew that it wasn’t what others thought of her that mattered, it was her sure knowledge of being beloved by God that sustained her and gave her the courage to say yes to God’s improbable invitation.

Do we know our own belovedness with such certainty that we are willing to say yes to God rather than worry about what others will think of us? Our willingness to trust this unconventional God may be what is needed for Christ to be born in each of us. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Advent Stillness

Stillness does not come easily to most of us. It is hard enough to be still on the outside, but just try to sit still for even five minutes and you’ll likely find that your mind’s activity is making you as tired as if you were actually moving physically.

Our culture devalues stillness, equating it with a lack of productivity. We’ve lost touch with the concept of fallowness, the practice of allowing a field to rest, so that it can be renewed. When a field lies fallow, it is then better able to provide the goodness seeds need for growth. In this season of winter, we see the bare limbs of a tree and know that even though it appears that nothing is happening, the tree is being made ready for spring’s new growth. Nature can teach us about stillness.

I struggle to be still. I know the value of stillness, but the mindset that activity equates to productivity is so culturally ingrained that it takes great discipline to overcome it and invite stillness. Last Sunday afternoon I chose to sit outside in the yard rather than take a walk. Walking feels more productive to me than sitting, but my spirit was renewed as I felt the gentle breeze on my skin, listened to the birds sing and watched the lengthening shadows fall across the yard.

Waiting and watching—Advent words that we are often too harried to embody—speak to me of fallowness, a stillness pregnant with meaning. In this stillness I let go of the false notion that what God wants most is my activity and realize that it is my heart that God longs for, a heart softened by stillness, a heart prepared to be the birthplace of Christ.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


 “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. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not 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, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”   Luke 21:25-36

The lectionary gospel text for the first Sunday of Advent, Luke 21:25-36, is Jesus foretelling the end of the world. As I listened to the passage read at a contemplative Eucharist service, it wasn’t the descriptions of terrifying events that got my attention. It wasn’t the warnings to be on guard, to not have a heart weighed down with worries of this life. It was a simple word, a small word, easily overlooked yet full of meaning. The word was “near.”

Jesus says that when all these events take place, “you know that the kingdom of God is near.” To think of the nearness of God turns this apocalyptic passage into one of promise for me because the God who is near at the end of the world is also near now, regardless of the circumstances in the world around us.

Advent is that season when we prepare for God’s nearness, God’s in-breaking into the world. God is not some distant deity but a God who came to us wearing skin, as a helpless baby. We romanticize this event, but the notion that God chose to come among us not with might and power but in the most powerless form of all, should be as alarming as Jesus’ description of the end of time.

The paradox of God is that God comes near both in power and in weakness. We do not have to fear the in-breaking of God into the world, either as a baby or as the one who shakes the world. Advent urges us to make space within our hearts for this God who comes near. We can sweep out the worries of this life out of our hearts and instead invite the Prince of Peace to dwell therein.