Back in 2011, I wrote this little parody of the classic children's story "The Little Red Hen." From time to time, I pull it out for the children's sermon. Today's message was from Acts 2:42-47; it felt like a good time for a retelling of The Little Red Church.
Once upon a time there was a little red church. The little red church had lots of friends. She had friends who were very old. She had friends who were adults but not too old. And she had friends who were still quite young. One day the little red church needed to bake some bread to send to God’s hungry children. The little red church went to her friends and said,
“Who will help me bake some bread to deliver to God’s hungry children?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We baked bread before, but we are tired now. We are too old to bake the bread.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We are busy busy busy. We have work to do and families to care for. We can’t take time to bake bread for people in need.”
“Not us,” said friends who were still quite young. “We are too young to bake bread. We don’t even know how. We will bake bread later when we are older.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not bake the bread herself.
But soon, the little red church tried again. Some of God’s children were sick, so she asked her friends,
“Who will help me visit God’s children who are sick?”
“Not us,” said the very old friends. “We have our own aches and pains to worry about. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “We have too many appointments to attend: not just for ourselves but also for our parents and for our children. We cannot go visit the sick.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “We are not allowed to go to hospitals. We are much too young. We cannot go visit the sick either.”
So the little red church sighed. She could not visit the sick herself.
Before long, though, the little red church heard of another need: some of God’s children had just moved into town. So she asked her friends,
“Who will go and welcome God’s children who have just moved into town?”
“Oh, my, not us,” said the very old friends. “We have nothing to offer new people in town. They are young and we are old. We cannot go visit new people in town.”
“Not us either,” said the friends who were adults but not too old. “Perhaps you could have them come to our offices. Or hey! We know. Tell them to come to the Civic Club meeting next Tuesday at 7. We will welcome them there.”
“Not us,” said the friends who were still quite young. “Stranger Danger!”
So the little red church just sighed. She decided to take a nap. She was so, so tired. The little red church slept for a very long time.
While the little red church was sleeping her friends began to get worried. They missed the little red church. They missed her singing. They missed her laughter. And they even missed her questions.
The friends who were very old talked together and decided, “We may not be able to do as much as we used to, but we could surely bake bread.”
The friends who were still quite young overheard them talking. “We have lots of energy but we do not know how to bake bread. Will you teach us?”
And so the friends who were very old and the friends who were still quite young began baking bread.
Meanwhile, the friends who were adults but not too old talked together and decided, “It doesn’t really take too long to visit someone who is sick if you plan ahead. We are very good at planning. Let’s make time to visit the sick.”
And some of the friends who were very old overheard their discussion and some of them said, “We would like to go and visit the sick, but we don’t like to drive downtown. Could you take us with you when you go to visit?”
And so the friends who were adults but not too old and the friends who were very old, began to visit the sick together.
About the same time, the friends who were still quite young began discussing the new students in their schools. “We can welcome these new children even though we don’t know their languages. Let’s go play with them.”
And the friends who were adults but not too old listened and thought, “We can welcome these children’s families too. Let’s have them share a meal with us.”
And so the friends who were still quite young and the friends who were adults but not too old began welcoming strangers.
In the little red church's yard, children were playing and laughing. In her kitchen, people were cooking and eating; in her sanctuary, people were praising and thanking God for gifts of hope and healing.
And so (naturally) the little red church woke up.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
This piece appeared first as my July column for Baptist News Global. You'll find the full text at the link below.
Source: Amazing grace: Settling a troubled soul – Baptist News Global
When I stepped onto her hall, I could see her slippered feet just outside the door frame of her room. In her wheelchair, she rocked heel to toe, toe to heel, back and forth and back again.
“Hey, there,” I said, crouching to her height and attempting to push her chair back so I could get into the room. (Imagine a 5’4” duck wearing jeans and a tie-dye T-shirt pushing a wheelchair backwards; you get the picture.) I managed it, then pulled a stool right up next to her chair so I could speak directly in her ear. Nonagenarian ears aren’t especially known for their acuity, you know.
She does not know me; when I began my job at her church, she was already at the point of needing care. . . .
They had already been married six years by then, so it caught her completely by surprise. It was 1931 and they lived in Brazil at the time, far away from the small towns in South Georgia where they spent their respective childhoods.
“He just tossed it over to me.” Grandmama loved to tell the story. “Just tossed it! The diamond only--it was in a little pouch of course; else I guess we would still be looking for it!” Grandmama laughed easily, particularly at her own jokes. “Asked me did I want to get it made into a ring.” She’d be fiddling with her ring by this point in the story, moving it this way and that so her diamond would catch the sunlight and throw it all over us. “Can you imagine? When I’d never seen something so pretty in my life.” The way she looked at it even then told us she hadn’t found anything yet that could top it. “Your Granddaddy wadn’t one to go and buy gifts much, so I told him right quick that I sure did want him to have it set into a ring!”
I heard the story nearly every year of my childhood. Grandmama loved that ring; I am certain I never saw her without it. She wore it with great joy and pride for more than sixty years until her passing in 1994, five years after Granddaddy died. She left her ring to my mother who wore it with as much love as her mother had.
My mother’s attachment to the ring extended far beyond the monetary value and physical beauty of it. That ring was a symbol for her parents, their love for each other, and their devotion to the family that grew out of that love. Mother wore it all the time. She was wearing it each time she welcomed a new grandchild (a total of eight in as many years). She was wearing it when she and Daddy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. And she was wearing it in January 2015 when she had an allergic reaction to a medication that resulted in an urgent 911 call.
The first-responders got Mother stabilized and out of immediate danger, but that did not alleviate her own sense of impending doom. As her heart raced and her breathing slowed, she fought to stay conscious while the EMT’s strapped her to a stretcher and carried her to the ambulance, bound for the closest hospital.
Her throat and tongue were too swollen for her to speak audibly, but she remembers crying out in her own mind, “I need to tell someone that I want Baker to have my mother’s ring!” She had made the decision, but had not yet told anyone, not even Daddy. She was terrified that she would die without anyone knowing.
Mother (who the grandkids call Gangi—which sounds kind of like “Angie” except “Gangi” is pronounced with two hard G’s) and her oldest grandson (Baker) have always had a close relationship. She stayed with us for three weeks after his birth and spend much of that time holding our cuddly boy. As he grew, Baker continued to look forward to his time with Gangi. Whenever she was around, he had what he called “a hug attack.” Actually, preschool Baker’s speech was hardly decipherable; his malady sounded something like “uh hud atat,” making the condition all the more adorable. Back then, he would climb onto her lap and snuggle in until the attack subsided. Relapses were common and frequent and Gangi was always willing to administer the necessary treatment.
It was this special connection—one that neither has outgrown—that prompted Mother’s desire to give Baker Grandmama’s cherished ring. Once she recovered from her near-death experience, she put it in writing that Baker was to receive the ring. That summer, she told him that she wanted to give it to him and that he could fashion it in any way he wished for the girl of his dreams. By that time—Summer 2015—Baker and Addison had been dating for over three and a half years. Mother already loved Addison and though she didn’t tell Baker then, it was Addison’s hand that Mother hoped to see adorned with the ring. (Only time would tell.) She told Baker that whenever he was ready, she would give it to him. In December 2016 at the annual Christmas visit, he went to her privately and said “Gangi, I would like to have the ring!”
I asked her how she felt about the whole thing, wondering if she questioned her decision or if she missed having the ring on her own hand.
“Oh no! I am completely happy about it,” she replied. “My heart is absolutely filled with joy knowing that this precious ring will be carried on into another generation. My parents were married 65 years and it would mean so much to them that their commitment to marriage and family continues in this way. They would be just thrilled that their beautiful diamond now glistens on the hand of their great-grandson’s fiancé.” Mother, unabashedly biased, added, “And I KNOW they would LOVE Addison!”
“How would it be if I proposed tomorrow night?”
The question of how and when to propose was one my son, Baker, and I had discussed a number of times over the previous three months. The logistics were the problem. While Baker and his girlfriend, Addison, are from the same hometown, they go to universities in two different cities. Also, Baker wanted his sisters home for the proposal, but one works full-time and lives in DC and the other is away at college. Plus, Baker needed to talk with Addison’s parents; but he rarely comes home and never without Addison. Talking with them without her knowledge would be quite a feat.
At the time of his question—Thursday night around 10 pm—Baker and Addison had been home for only about five or six hours. Neither of his sisters were in town and he still hadn’t talked to Addison’s parents.
Baker did already have the ring*, though; in fact, he’d had it pretty much since Summer 2015. Back then, my mother had offered him her mother’s diamond ring. She told Baker just to let her know when he was ready to propose and the ring would be his to redesign in whatever way he chose. So, Christmas 2016, he asked her for the ring; the two of us went to Jewels that Dance in January.
“Addison had specific ideas about what she wanted in an engagement ring,” Baker told us the next night after the deed had been done.
“We made it a game!” Addison explained. “I would show him a ring and tell him what I liked about it. Then I would ask him to guess what I didn’t like about that particular ring. It was really fun!”
“We played it a lot.”
“Because it was fun!”
“It was more fun for her than for me.”
So, using the diamonds from my grandmother’s ring, Baker (in collaboration with the jeweler) designed the ring with the round cut solitaire in the center and six of the diamond accents on the band. Between the accent diamonds, he had the jeweler fashion a palm branch.
“I’d seen people put symbols on their rings that represent their relationship,” Baker explained to the group gathered in our family room post-proposal. “And of course I could have put a music symbol because that is certainly something that is characteristic of our relationship.”
They’d met in the high school marching band. Addison became drum major her senior year, and Baker earned the role the next year when he was in 12th grade. Baker went on to major in music and Addison continues to participate in the music programs at her university and church.
“But really, I wanted something that represented our faith, because as important as music is to us, our faith is certainly more central to who we are as individuals and as a couple,” Baker explained. “The palm branch was an early Christian symbol. That’s why you’ll see it as an architectural motif at First Baptist of Asheville.”
Baker and Addison are both members and active participants of FBCA. Last summer, they were interns there—Addison with the children’s programs and Baker with the music ministry. The church has had a major impact on their lives and their relationship. The palm branch represents both their faith and their home church: a perfect addition!
But back to that Thursday night. Baker got busy making calls and forming a plan. Fortunately, everything worked in his favor. Addison slept late Friday morning—something she rarely does. Her parents’ schedules were flexible enough that he was able to talk with them before she awakened. We already had plans to go out to eat—the two of them and both sets of parents—to celebrate Baker’s 21st birthday (a week late). From that, he pulled together as many of their traditions as he could fit in one day.
You should know that they started dating when he was 15 going on 16 and she was 16 going on 17. (They are now 21 and almost 22.) On their first date, they went to Brixx; for their first Valentine’s Day, Baker gave her a bear (dressed—naturally—in a baker’s outfit) from Build-a-Bear. Every year on their anniversary, they go to Brixx; to date, Addison has six Valentine’s Day Build-a-Bears. And not so much tradition as habit—they often have reason to stop by First Baptist.
Hold up. Let’s just pause for a minute and picture 15-year-old Baker going into Build-a-Bear, choosing a teddy bear, going through the whole process of stuffing it, then picking out an outfit for it and dressing it. If that weren’t enough, then he had to walk back through the mall carrying the signature Build-a-Bear box. Yep. He did that.
Anyway, after talking with Addison’s parents Friday morning, Baker went over to Build-a-Bear. He left with an adorable bear—filled to just the right level of fluffiness (he’s an expert by now)—dressed in a bridal gown, complete with veil and sparkly shoes. My job was to order desert pizza from Brixx to have at home for the post-proposal celebration. (We were optimistic about a positive result!) Baker then called FBCA to make sure he could access their Sacred Garden that evening. A dear friend served as Baker’s accomplice; while we were at dinner, she would go to the Sacred Garden to set everything in place. The night before, Baker had contacted several close friends and his younger sister. They would be at our house by 10 pm to celebrate with the newly engaged couple. (Shout out to the world’s best millennials for making the four-hour drive with less than 24 hours’ notice!)
When we finished dinner, we parents said we would wait for the bill, asking Baker if he and Addison would go on home to let our dog out. He agreed, but just needed to run by the church and “pick up organ music he had left there” (wink, wink). Once there, rather than go in where they usually did, Baker suggested they just cut through the Sacred Garden and enter through the door on the other side.
“What’s that?” Addison asked when she saw something unusual set up in the Garden.
“I don’t know. Let’s go check.”
“It looks like a shrine to a teddy bear!” (The wind had blown Teddy’s veil up, giving it a shadowy and slightly eerie appearance. Not exactly the effect Baker had in mind!)
They approached, Baker went down on one knee, Addison squealed (repeatedly), Baker proposed, and Addison said yes.
“So,” I asked her as I looked at the ring sparkling on her left hand. “How did Baker do?”
“It’s prettier than anything I could have imagined!” she said.
“Yes!” Baker said, clinching his fist in victory.
(Wedding date yet to be determined, but it will be sometime after Addison gets her next Valentine’s Day bear.)
*Want to know the beautiful back story on the ring? Click here for the rest of the story!
(While I don't agree with everything anyone says, I liked this piece a lot and thought my readers might as well.)
Let the record show that I did not consent to this. Let it show that I did not vote for this man, that he did not represent me, that I did not believe he was deserving of being here, that I grieved…
Published originally January 22, 2011
Certain things bring certain people to mind. Like, at the mention of oatmeal raisin cookies, I think of my father-in-law. That man (inexplicably) believes those are the best cookies on the planet. I can just hear our ongoing debate over the benefits of other cookies, me trying to convince him that a chocolate chip cookie is most definitely superior. If I hear or see a phrase in Latin, in the same instant, my sister (a Latin teacher) comes to mind. I see her (really see her) standing, toga clad, before her students. I hear her voice, so full of passion when she talks about the language she loves. When I see daisies, my friend Traci’s favorite flower, I’m transported to her daisy-themed kitchen.
So, when I saw the order of worship at First Baptist of Marion last Sunday, I just figured the music minister had known Dan Goodman. After all, it was only a few days earlier that we marked the second anniversary of Dr. Goodman’s death. So surely, when “Be Thou My Vision” was chosen for the anthem, it was in his memory; everyone knows that was his favorite hymn.
It was the hymn we sang in the chapel on the day he died. It was sung at his funeral. And whenever someone wants to honor him, they often sing that song, post the title as their Facebook™ status, or Tweet™ a few of its words. “Be Thou My Vision.” Dan Goodman. The two were forever linked.
But the music minister didn’t know Dan Goodman personally. I asked him.
Meanwhile, Dr. Goodman’s wife, Barbara, was already at the early service in another town. She was worshiping that day with one of our mutual friends. On the way to church, Barbara mentioned, “Did you see that Aileen’s preaching in Marion today?” He had. (Facebook™. Gotta love it.) Sometime during their worship service, they made a quick decision to ditch that church and head over to Marion. Now I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure how they made their exit. Me, I like to picture them jumping up mid-homily, hurdling over co-pew dwellers, and racing out of the sanctuary. But that’s just me.
Back in Marion, the service began. From the dais, I spotted my friends in the congregation quickly, touched by their presence. I looked at Barbara, always so beautiful, her eyes sparkling, having pulled off this surprise.
The anthem. Did she know yet?
The time came. The choir stood. The organist played. My eyes found Barbara’s. The song began.
And there was Dan Goodman. Rushing out of Greek class saying, “I’ve got a lunch date with Barbara. I can’t be late for Barbara.” There he was before our New Testament class, telling of the early death of his own father, saying how much he would hate for his sons to have to endure what he did. “Maybe that’s why I want all four of us together all the time,” he said, laughing as he told us his boys were beginning to think he was dorky for wanting to be around them constantly. There he was, sunglasses clipped to the back of his shirt, water bottle in hand, standing outside the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. “The Jews believe memory is sacred,” he said. “Sacred memory. It’s just one more way to worship.”
The song drew to a close: "High King of heaven, my victory won, May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heav'ns Son! Heart of my own heart, whatever befall, Still be my vision, O ruler of all.”
The choir took their seats. The organist moved over to the piano bench. And the service proceeded, moved along by the rush of the Spirit, the light of the Son, and the immeasurable, unfathomable, inescapable love of God.
“Thou my best thought, by day or by night; Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” From stanza one, “Be Thou My Vision.”
Back before holiday greetings came under scrutiny, it was easy. Sometimes I would say, “Merry Christmas!” More often, though, I would say, “Happy Holidays!” because it applies to the whole season: Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s. Today, if I say “Happy Holidays,” I might be accused of secularizing the sacred; but if I say “Merry Christmas,” does it sound like I’m trying to proselytize?
It all started several years ago when a few prominent retailers purportedly required employees to wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” rather than “Merry Christmas.” These over-anxious merchants then painted over their “Merry Christmas” signs to read “Happy Holidays,” putting the kibosh on spreading Christmas cheer. Why, you ask? I don’t really know, but I can guess: money. It’s always about money. I’d bet you an elf on a shelf that this greeting adjustment was meant to increase profits by attracting shoppers of other faiths and appealing to customers who don’t identify with any religion at all.
Now, I don’t know much about the retail business, but I think this decision was profoundly stupid. It’s pretty clear to me that the last person a shopkeeper wants to offend in December is someone celebrating Christmas. I mean, a high percentage—somewhere between 20 and 60 percent—of all annual retail sales are attributed to Christmas buying. Alienating these shoppers could lead to a serious financial shortfall.
Anyway, once word of this ixnay on istmasChray got out, media moguls began enlisting Christian soldiers to fight in the War on Christmas. Pretty soon, folks from throughout Christendom—Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, you name it—were moving beyond theological differences to join in this holy war. Bumper stickers appeared on sedans, pickups, and hot rods saying “Keep Christ in Christmas,” or “I still Celebrate Christmas” or “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas to me.” Soon you could buy clothing, accessories, and more emblazoned with these loaded messages.
Here’s what I think. Political correctness is a good thing. The idea is basically, “Think about your words before you say them aloud.” Who among us couldn’t benefit from that basic restraint now and then? Like many good things though, political correctness can go too far.
Take your roadside “Holiday Tree” vendor. Now, this person is in truth selling Christmas trees. I know this because I have Jewish friends; I have Muslim friends; none of them have trees up in their houses. Paying obscene prices for trees that once grew in our mountains but now stand, freshly axed from their roots, bunched together under multi-colored lights—well that behavior is singularly Christian. Wait, I take that back. I have friends who are atheists. They buy Christmas trees too. But I don’t know anyone who buys a Hanukkah pine, or a Ramadan bush. Same thing goes for wreaths. I mean really. It’s not an Arbor Day wreath. It’s not a Kwanzaa wreath. Whatcha got yourself there is a Christmas wreath, plain and simple. So if you’re a seasonal foliage pusher, call them Christmas decorations—because that’s what they are. Or call it all “Holiday Greenery” if you want--it's your business.
That is what it is too: business. And since when was it retailers job to keep Christ in Christmas? What matters to corporations is money. So, if they are putting the name of Jesus Christ on something to make it sell, then I believe they are using God’s name in vain. Plus, I don’t know anyone who has come to a saving knowledge of Jesus because they looked up in Toys-R-Us™ and saw a “Christmas Discounts” sign; do you? (One more thing, I don’t think we can begin to guess what Jesus the Nazarene would do with this mess of affluenza and consumerism we’ve got going on in this country; but I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t want his name on it. Just sayin’.)
Years ago, my daughter and I were watching a Christmas movie when a Wal-Mart™ commercial aired. After advertising the prices that had just been lowered on Christmas must-haves, they signed-off promising, “Christmas costs less at Wal-Mart™.” I winced like I do when someone uses the name of God as a swear word. My daughter looked at me with 14 year old wisdom and said “Christmas doesn’t cost anything.”
She was right; it doesn’t—at least not in the way that commercial meant. Yet there are incalculable costs: the preparations for Christmas meals; the sacrifices we make to be with family; the practice time musicians invest in preparing annual concerts. These things can’t go in sale papers. They can’t be discounted. They can’t be put on glitzy signs in high-dollar department stores.
In order to Keep Christ in Christmas, we don’t need merchants to put the name of the holiday on their signs. Instead, we need to turn our own eyes away from the modern accoutrements of the season, and focus instead on the gift God gave us in God’s son Jesus.
To hear retailers tell it, the Christmas season started just before Halloween. From CVS to Sears, stores have been festooned in red and green for weeks. The virtual world is no better. Before we even had a chance to design our holiday cards on shutterfly.com, social media got in the holiday spirit by making a cacophonous noise about the Red Cup of Starbucks. Indeed, the world seems to define the holiday season by what will sell best, whether it’s novelty socks or news articles.
But the church defines the season in a different way. The Christian church celebrates the season of Advent for the four weeks preceding Christmas Day. But what is Advent? Too many Christians don't have any idea. So, in an effort to help remedy this, I thought I’d offer this somewhat academic post about the Advent season. Here you go: your very own Advent Primer.
History & Tradition
The name, “Advent,” comes from the Latin, adventus, meaning “coming.” During Advent, Christians focus on the incarnation of Jesus Christ and on Christ’s eventual return, thereby highlighting both the humanity and the divinity of Christ. Advent is a celebration of the mystery of the trinity, made manifest in Jesus Christ who was fully human and simultaneously fully God.
Interestingly, the church has not always recognized this season leading up to Christmas. By the fifth century, the church had begun toying with the idea of a time of preparation prior to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Modeled on the Lenten season (40 days of fasting prior to Easter), Advent was observed in the West long before the Eastern church adopted the idea. By the 11th century CE, most countries had set aside approximately four weeks before Christmas for focused liturgy, abstinence, and fasting. Today, both Catholic and protestant congregations observe Advent as a time of reflection and contemplation.
A part of Advent worship is the lighting of the Advent wreath. Traditionally, the wreath, circular in design and made of evergreen branches includes five candles: four around the wreath and a center Christ candle. The candles are lit in successive weeks, adding one each week until Christmas Eve when the Christ candle is lit along with the four candles encircling the wreath.
The Christ candle is white. The candles for weeks one, two, and four are either blue or purple, depending on the church’s preference or tradition. The candle for the third Sunday is pink or rose in color. Themes for Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love.
Hope, the First Sunday of Advent
The candle lit on this day is blue or purple and is called the Prophecy Candle. On the first Sunday of Advent, the church reflects on the coming Kingdom of Christ. Texts for this Sunday are eschatological in nature. According to www.webster.com, eschatology is “a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind.” But, the focus of this day is hope, not fear or anxiety. You see, we can get glimpses of God’s kingdom every day. Celtic Christians call these glimpses “thin places,” places where heaven seems to touch earth. On this Sunday of Hope, we can rest in the knowledge that in Christ, the Kingdom of God will certainly come in the future; let us also anticipate encounters with these thin places in which we experience the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Peace, the Second Sunday of Advent
On the Second Sunday, we light the blue or purple Bethlehem Candle and the church remembers the Hebrew Prophets. It may seem confusing that today’s candle is called the Bethlehem Candle and we’re talking about Hebrew Prophets, when last week’s candle was named Prophecy. The confusion arises from our misunderstanding of the work of Hebrew prophets. Often, modern people think of the verb “prophesy” as a synonym for “predict.” But an Old Testament prophet was not a kind of ancient soothsayer who predicted future events with eerie accuracy. Instead, they were truth-tellers, delivering divine words of warning and of redemption to the people of God. Today, we look to Bethlehem, where Redemption was born.
Joy, the Third Sunday of Advent
On the third Sunday of Advent, the pink Shepherd’s Candle is lit, the. The candle is pink in commemoration of an ancient tradition in the church. In the early days of the church, the seven-week term of Lent was the only recognized liturgical season. On the third Sunday of Lent, the church took a brief break from fasting to celebrate the joy that was forthcoming in Easter. On this day, the Pope gave a pink rose to a congregant. Churches today use the pink candle in tribute to this custom from the church’s earliest days and as a reminder of the coming season of Lent.
On this Sunday, the church recalls the ministry of John the Baptist. John connects the prophets of old who spoke of righteousness, to Jesus Christ who embodied it. John the Baptist resembled an Old Testament prophet, yet as contemporary with Jesus, his message carried a unique sense of urgency. The biblical account the birth of Christ places the shepherds on the scene at the time of the nativity. Their rush to the manger resulted from their understanding of the magnitude of the moment. There is only one more Sunday of Advent. Time is drawing nigh! On the first Christmas, the Shepherds understood the immediacy of the moment; and during his ministry, John the Baptist did too.
Love, the Fourth Sunday of Advent
The last Sunday before Christmas the church lights the remaining blue or purple candle, the Angel Candle. Texts focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus. As we await the coming of Christ, we recall the joyous proclamation of the angels and Mary’s faithful obedience to God. When the angel Gabriel delivered his message to her—that she, a virgin betrothed to be married, was pregnant with the son of God—Mary gave herself fully and completely to God’s plan for her life. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we look to Mary’s example for guidance on how we might also fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.
Advent. It’s intentional and slow, not harried and fast. The world shouts, “Hurry up! You’re so far behind!” The church whispers, “Be still. Listen.” The world says, “You’re not doing enough! You’re running out of time.” The church says, “This is the moment. Be fully present in it.”
This Christmas, let’s stroll through Advent, enjoying the sights and sounds of the season and with hearts full of hope, peace, joy, and love, let us listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
(Check Wikipedia for this year's Advent dates.)
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.