An Advent message from the prophet Zephaniah "Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! . . .At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord." Zep 3:14, 20 NRSV
"Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!"
Twenty voices sang to the little guest of honor enthroned in her high chair. Anna Kate, celebrating her second birthday, celebrated her first in a very different place. Back then, she lay in a Russian orphanage awaiting her turn for nourishment and a little nurture as well.
"Happy Birthday Anna Kay-ate! Happy Birthday to you!"
Anna Kate beamed, looking around at all the people gathered just for her. A look of wonder filled her eyes as she said just one word, "Happy."
And in that moment, I beheld joy in the shape of a little girl. I got a snapshot, just a glimpse, of what it must have been like to see the face of Christ.
Christ had a second birthday too, you know. When Jesus was two years old and toddling about, do you think humanity realized the treasure in its midst? Of course Mary did, and Joseph. And surely other family members recognized that this baby was indeed extraordinary. But there must have been those who missed their chance to cradle joy incarnate in their arms. There must've been.
This advent season, we are called to embrace the coming of Christ. Don't miss your chance. Celebrate the joy of Christ today.
"Jesus, let us glimpse this day, joy incarnate. In the midst of our 21st century frenzy, slow us down that we might recognize your face, thereby experiencing the wonder of Advent."
Anna Kate & family 2018
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
Luke 1:78-79 NRSV
Back in the 1970’s, when $250,000 was an exorbitant amount to spend on an advertisement, Coca Cola Bottling Company assembled a cast and crew on a mountain in Italy to film what would become one of the most popular TV commercials of all time. In the ad, young people who appear to be from every tribe and nation, join in singing a song that even now, almost fifty years later, many people can recall.
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company.
That's the real thing.
Back in the day, if you watched that commercial and did not shed a tear, you were in the minority. When you saw those youthful faces bright with hope, it was nearly undeniable: if everyone could just have a nice cold Coca-Cola, the world would most certainly be at peace.
In the above text, we read about what the world truly does need, and it’s not a soft drink. Old Zechariah, still glowing from the unexpected miracle of his newborn son, explains, “Through the heartfelt mercies of our God, God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.” (Luke 1:78-79 The Message)
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 had started revisiting the controversies of Christmas Past: what will Starbucks put on their cups this year? how will we greet each other? is there really a festivus for the rest-of-us? Indeed, the world seems to define the holiday season by what will sell best, whether it’s novelty socks or news articles--fake or true.
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 of us 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.
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.” Click To Tweet
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. Often, 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 usually pink or rose in color. However, opinions differ widely on how best to represent the Advent season through the color of the candles. I'm sticking with the white center, purple, purple, pink, purple arrangement in this post because that is what the churches I've served have done. (Pick your battles, as they say.
Anyway, themes for Advent are hope, peace, joy, and love. As with the colors of the candles, there is some variance in the order of these themes. Almost always, though, "hope" comes first and "joy" is third. I've only recently learned that some church traditions flip the second and fourth themes. Again, I revert to the order I've followed in my ministry (and, full disclosure, what my daddy has always done in his). Plus, I think we can all agree that this is not the most urgent argument in the Kingdom of God, right? When it comes to candle colors and the order of Advent themes, I'm thinking we can make like Elsa and just "let it go," am I right?
Hope, the First Sunday of Advent
The candle lit on this day is blue or purple and is sometimes 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 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.)
First published in 2015, edited and republished annually. Most recent edits 2018
“Before I was ordained, I just thought every day was Reign of Christ Day,” the rector quipped. Comfortable laughter wafted through the sanctuary.
I was attending the early service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Georgetown with my husband and our daughter who was a senior at Georgetown University. She worshipped regularly with this congregation, so it was a delight to join her there in her chosen sacred space. The Sunday we were there was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the beginning of Advent: Reign of Christ Sunday.
Referencing Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann in her sermon, the rector discussed one difference between good and evil. “Good doesn’t like big imagination because it requires us to be too vulnerable, to work too hard. Evil, on the other hand, loves big imagination.”
I wasn’t sure I understood; she continued. “A wistful mention of the end to local homelessness tends to be met not by enthusiastic support, but by scoffing judgment and wringing of hands. But let Evil mention a big idea. ‘Let’s kill an entire race of people! Let’s fly planes into buildings! Let’s open fire inside an elementary school.’” She listed these real-life tragedies with machine-gun fire rapidity. “Evil has a preposterously huge idea and gets busy, plotting and planning, seemingly unconcerned with any possibility of failure. Good holds back. Good lists all the reasons this dream is improbable and unrealistic, then Good shrugs its shoulders and walks away.”
It was a valid point and frankly, hit me right in my self-righteous intentions.
“On this reign of Christ Sunday,” she challenged us, “the Body of Christ needs to remember where our center of government is. It’s not in Washington, but in the tender hands of merciful Jesus. Those hands can handle any dreams we can conceive, regardless of magnitude.”
Prayers followed the sermon and then it was time for Holy Eucharist. (What we Baptists call the Lord’s Supper and have monthly or quarterly, the Episcopalians have weekly and then some. If it were a competition, I’d say they are beating us on this count.)
We all filed to the front of the church and circled around the table—there were about 30 of us, maybe 40. The officiants blessed the bread and the cup, then handed one plate of bread to the left, one to the right. The organist began playing a familiar hymn as the elements of communion passed from person to person around the circle.
Let us break bread together on our knees.
Let us break bread together on our knees.
“The body of Christ, broken for you,” said a silver haired man as he leaned over to the caramel colored girl next to him.
“Thanks be to God,” a bespectacled brown man said as he received the bread from a young white man sporting a fresh military haircut.
When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun.
O Lord, have mercy on me.
The cup made its way around, passing from a teenage acolyte to a tall Asian woman with two children of disparate ethnicities.
“The blood of Christ, shed for you,” a college student said to a young dad who held his infant son, swaddled but squirmy.
A little girl—three years old or maybe four--rocked back and forth, toe to heel, in her shiny Mary Janes; a twenty-something year old woman, her raven black hair plaited in the back, smiled at the fidgety girl. A baby cried. A grown man, eyes glistening, shed a tear or two himself.
Let us praise God together on our knees.
Let us praise God together on our knees.
When I fall down on my knees, with my face to the rising sun,
O Lord have mercy on me!
What a holy and blessed time of worship. A challenging proclamation by a gifted and engaging pastor, sacred communion celebrated at the foot of the cross, and a rich foretaste of God’s kingdom: an eclectic, multi-generational, international collection of believers who came together for this one moment of connection. For me, it was like a glimpse of a dream come true.
Oh Lord, let me dream big and act with bold conviction that it is You who reign in my life.
What about you? What’s YOUR dream?
Published originally November 2015
When the youth group goes to Fort Caswell for the spring retreat, one of the many traditions involves a team building exercise known as The Wall. The Wall is about 10-12 feet high and 6-8 feet wide and kids who choose to participate scale the wall with others in their grade. It’s always a beautiful thing to watch.
This year, Cameron, a 16 year old who has been raised in the church, made his first trip to Caswell. He’d been on other youth trips, but not this one; so he’d never seen The Wall, never participated in this tradition. Of course, he didn’t have to do it. No one would have objected if he’d taken a pass.
You see, since birth, Cameron has developed at a different speed than other children. One orthopedist even told his parents not to expect much in the way of gross motor development, saying that Cameron would likely be in a wheelchair. (His parents got a different orthopedist.) It took him awhile, but with the help of a kid-sized walker, Cameron put one foot in front of the other, and by the time he was four and a half years old, he was walking on his own. These days, while his muscle tone is still relatively low, he gets around fine. He does, however, walk slower and more intentionally than most folk. And, well, he just has to work a little harder than other people to move through the world.
But back to Caswell’s wall.
“Are you going to climb The Wall, Cameron?” We asked him mostly out of courtesy, not wanting him to feel left out.
“Yep,” he said, looking over his glasses that had once again slipped too far down his nose; and he made his way over to lifelong friends who awaited him at the wall.
Physically, Cameron couldn’t offer much assistance at all. He couldn’t push or pull himself up. He couldn’t reach out or grab hold. If he panicked, he would fall. If he struggled against them, they would drop him.
Cameron put his hands on sure shoulders and lifted a foot onto the human stool; his friends did the rest. One adult and two girls standing on the back of the wall reached down, while several guys at the base helped lift him up. Other teens gathered around, arms extended, ready.
He progressed, inches at the time, eventually straddling the top of the wall. Once there though, he seemed to get stuck. A moment of uncertainty followed when no one was exactly sure how to proceed. Then another teen—a bulky weight lifter—popped up on the back of the wall, reached down, and gently lifted Cameron’s leg up and over.
Cameron got his balance, looked out over the crowd, and hesitantly lifted a hand to wave.
Now for most kids, getting down is easy; but Cameron couldn’t jump off the platform to the ground without injury. No worries! His friends had already figured it out. Four strong arms waited to cradle Cameron from the wall to the ground. He let go, they held on, and then he was down, smiling at the cheers and congratulations from his youth group.
Cameron punched his fist into the palm of his hand and said, “I did it!”
And he did. He really did.
First Baptist Church of Asheville Youth Group, Fort Caswell 2014
. . . like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood . . . from 1 Peter 2:5
Noise. Grating, irritating, cacophonous, noise. The strings sounded awful—each one seeming to play a separate tune. The brass burped out the bass clef—15 individual bass clefs that is. The woodwinds must have been playing the melody, but no one could tell it by listening. The whole orchestra was an utter mess. In fact, if this was any indication, the concert would be unbearable.
And it would have been too, because each musician focused on her own sound: each one listening for his own errors or her own expertise. Not one in the group was concerned with how they sounded as a whole. It was all about individual performance.
But then the conductor mounted his stand. The musicians silenced themselves. Maestro raised the baton. The instruments snapped to attention. With a wave of his hand, the music began. Stringed instruments lifted notes into the air as percussionists tapped out the beat. Horns came in, announcing their arrival, as the woodwinds snuck in behind them. Music floated through the auditorium, sending waves of delight through the audience. Harmony. It’s a beautiful thing: even more beautiful than the dissonance was annoying.
Here’s the thing: when the musicians’ thoughts were on their own weaknesses or their own strengths, their whole community suffered. Sound familiar? Isn’t that what it is like in the body of Christ? When individuals, persons or congregations, begin to focus on what they can and can’t do, the world hears clanging gongs and crashing symbols. To those listening, the discordance is jarring.
Yet when we turn our eyes to the Conductor of our faith, when we release our concerns and our confidences and allow ourselves to be led by Jesus, what beautiful music we make. The peaceful tones we express draw others to us and thereby to Christ.
We are called to make a joyful noise. Let us set aside our differences and sing in harmony, “Hallelujah! Lord God Almighty!”
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6 (NRSV)
My mother, a stay-at-home mom, made Easter the true highlight of Spring. We had neighborhood Easter egg hunts, attended by 1000 kids or so. (Or maybe 10, but it was a lot.) She always made my sister & me matching outfits, and not just dresses either. From the same fabric, she stitched purses, hair barrettes, and even bows for our shoes. She also made our younger brother little miniature seventies-style leisure suits. And if she was running around on Easter Eve getting basket goodies, we never knew it.
It’s the Saturday before the Saturday before--
Everything’s almost done.
Easter dresses, matching: hemmed and hanging.
Eggs, two dozen, waiting to dye.
Basket treats purchased and hidden away.
It’s the Saturday before--
Our guests are all here.
Neighbors, church folks, family and strangers
Eggs, freshly hued, tucked low in tall grass.
A prize egg too, stuffed with secret delights.
“Go find them” “I see one!” “All done!” “Oh! Let’s see!”
It’s the Sunday we planned for
And it’s all just right.
Baskets with bunnies and chocolate and more.
New dresses, new shoes, and purses to match.
Lunch nearly made before breakfast is done.
A long-eared cake, a smile on its face.
There’s the camera, take the pictures, hurry up, let’s get moving.
It's Easter Sunday!
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen Indeed!
Here's to you Mother! Thanks for taking care of the minutiae so we could experience the magnificence!
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.
It was January 13, 2009 and I was on my way to the college when my cell phone rang.
"Where are you?" my GWU friend asked.
"On the way. What's up?"
"Uhhh, nothin', just wanted to see if you wanted to meet Gary and me for coffee."
"You're out of class?" I asked. It was only 8:30 and they had Dr. Cal Robertson. Doc Cal never ends class early. Never. "I thought you had Robertson."
"We do. . . we just . . . well . . . we're at the coffee shop."
"Is something wrong with Robertson? Is he sick?" There was something she wasn't telling me, but she said he was fine. "Robertson is NOT fine if he let you out of class early."
"No, really. Robertson is fine."
I'm slow on the uptake at 8:30 in the morning. I didn't hear the shock in her voice, the utter disbelief. I didn't hurry. When I got to GWU, my friends met me, not at the coffee shop, but in the yard outside the divinity school.
"Aileen. Dr. Goodman died this morning," Donna told me.
"It's true Aileen," Gary said, "He collapsed in the shower. We don't know any more details right now."
"Dr. Goodman?" I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "Are you sure?" (We ask stupid questions like that when we are in shock.) They nodded, while still disbelieving the news themselves.
"We're having chapel today, but they changed the planned service. Now the focus will be Dr. Goodman."
In a few hours, we all went to church. Here's what I wrote about that service.
We always draw the attention of strangers as we—nearly 20 of us—claim our spot on the beach. It’s impossible for our cumbersome crew to go unnoticed: a half-dozen pale-skinned adults slick with sunscreen, eight bathing-suit-clad Caucasian cousins ages 9 to 18, and one African preschooler whose skin tone matches the color of rich, dark chocolate. So even on South Carolina beaches where almost anything goes, we are the exception.
It all started when my cousin lost her ever-loving mind. I found out from my mother, who called me to give me the news.
“You are not going to believe what your cousin Kathi is doing. You are. Not. Going. To. BeLIEVE it.”
Kathi is about ten years older than I am. Despite a life laced with heartbreak and disappointment, Kathi has done well for herself. She’s always been employed: factories in the early years, grocery stores for most of the last twenty. She owns her own home and has developed a network of faithful friends and beloved family. Her two sons, who she raised without the help of her ex-husband, their dad, grew into responsible, hard-working, family men.
“Kathi is taking in a 3-year old African child,” Mother said.
“Come again?” I figured I’d misheard.
“Your 50+ year old cousin is taking in a toddler from another country.” Mother proceeded to tell me the rest of the story. (For the sake of privacy and protection, I’ll refer to the child as Little One.)
Little One’s mother, a friend of a friend of a friend, was incarcerated and needed someone to keep her child for just two weeks. Kathi didn’t know the mother and neither did the woman who called her. To sane folk, the whole thing sounded like a legal disaster. We cautioned Kathi. We advised her. We insisted she procure some official statement of custody. She listened, but as I said, she’d lost her mind right about the time she learned of this child in need. (It might also be possible that Kathi’s mind was right where it was supposed to be, being transformed.)
Little One moved in and soon everyone who loved Kathi loved the child. Two weeks came and went ten times and after five months the mother saw fit to reclaim her child. By then, the bond between my cousin and Little One was strong enough to last.
So for the last three summers, Little One has been with us on the beach: playing in the surf, building sand castles, looking for shells, never out of sight of this new family-in-love. And at some point, salty and sleepy, Little One seeks out Kathi and climbs into her lap.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Kathi says in response to our praise of her selfless actions. She enfolds the sandy brown hand resting on her knee into her own; the child leans back, snuggled against the shoulder that has proven so reliable. “Little One needed a place to stay. God told me to offer my home. So I did.”
And to Kathi, it really was—is—that simple.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2