Yonder

The familiar carol rings:

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn

A thrill of hope…yet some days hope feels like a discipline, something to hang on to for dear life as we toss, washed and worn, by the cosmic spin cycle.

Still, I think of children on Christmas Eve, hoping for the gifts that will be under the tree when they awake. They rightly hope, because they know they are loved and that their loved ones will make sure there will indeed be gifts, however so humble. Those children, they thrill with hope. Beyond the annual Christmas joy-filled celebration, their hope makes the family Christmas services hum with anticipation.

the weary world rejoices. The weary soul rejoices. Has my soul become too weary to thrill, to rejoice? How many of us slog through the burn-out day after day, attempting to drown out the noise, self-caring and self-medicating by turns, never feeling fully refreshed? When even rejoicing feels like a forced discipline, how do we rest our weary souls?

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Yonder: over there, in the distance. At least, tomorrow, after we go to sleep on Christmas Eve to awake to the sure knowledge that Jesus Christ has been born. Or, at least, New Year’s Day with a whole new year stretching before us.

We’ve had a rough go for the, oh, last couple years. For various reasons–political, professional, and personal–each of us (and yes, me me me) has had to work hard to hope, to thrill, to rejoice, to refresh, to wait for the yonder. I’m hoping we can let go of the past and move with increased joy into the yonder of 2019.

I have no idea what that might look like. I’m not one for resolutions, just for taking the next right step as firmly as I can and resetting when that step falters as steps occasionally do. However, I received some end-of-year encouragement from my daily Bible reading:

Sing to the Lord a new song.
    Sing his praises in the assembly of the faithful.

Psalm 149:1 (NLT)

Sing a new song now to the Creator and Sustainer who in the end will make all things new again (Colossians 1:15-17, Revelation 21:5).

Even better:

…she laughs without fear of the future.

Proverbs 31:25b

For now, trepidation comes more easily than laughter. And so I will keep at hope, rejoicing, singing, and laughing, intentionally injecting each day with prayer and love and moments of happiness.

Advent 2018 Wk4 – Worship

Too often we think Worship = Going to Church. We hustle-bustle out the door. We sit, stand, sing, shake hands in the pews, listen. We greet our neighbors and head home, worship-job done.

That’s too narrow. Worship = recognizing and reflecting back to God His incredible worth, to love Him and love our neighbor with all our heart, soul, and strength, Sundays and all through the week.

I love Jesus, and I believe God ordained the Church to be a unique witness of His love for humanity.

However, more than ever, I am accurately aware that Church isn’t doing it for a lot of people. That many have been allowed, even encouraged, to substitute Church for Jesus in worship. That what should be safe sanctuary has been instead a place of pain. This place, this people, that should witness to God’s love hasn’t been doing a great job.

Not to vilify all churches in all places and times, not at all. Some churches are doing a beautiful job living God’s story. Yet I hear repeating refrains from many directions that they haven’t found those places.

I am also reminded of how desperately we need God. I met a couple this weekend who told me they have lost five young men to suicide in the last five months, friends and sons or brothers of friends. Their story oozes the aches of living in a fallen world. I cling to hope for the Church to be a place that eases the pain, that gives comfort and courage to face each day, that offers light and love and joy.

The Magi encourage me. They actively sought the coming King and were open to seeing signs of His arrival directing them to the most unlikely place. They left their business (and theology) as usual and endured a trying journey to fall down before Him in worship. They worked hard to seek and find the One True King.

Maybe the most worshipful thing you can do today is go to church. Or try a new church. Or, maybe Church looks like quietly listening for His still small voice through His Word. Or heading outdoors to take a walk with Him. Maybe it looks like loving your family, friends, and neighbors, the people He put in your life for you to love as He does. Or loving yourself, making self-care a priority.

Whatever your practice, keep Jesus the focus of worship. Keep your eyes open to see Him in the expected and unexpected places. And be aware of His unending grace and overwhelming love raining down on you as you journey to wherever you have to go to fall down before Him in worship.

Come, Lord Jesus, and give us eyes to see you and love to offer the world.

Week 4 – The Magi’s Worship

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light four candles: We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith, and to inspire our worship.

Read Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Read: The Magi had open eyes. They actively searched for signs of the King’s arrival and, when they spotted the star, they took a long journey to joyfully worship Him face-to-face. Herod, however, had his eyes and ears shut tight to the good news of Jesus’ birth. May we be constantly on the lookout for signs of God’s presence with us and respond to Him in joyful worship.

Pray: King Jesus, we joyfully bow down in worship before you. In your name we pray, Jesus. Amen.

“Next time a sunrise steals your breath, or a meadow of flowers leaves you speechless, remain that way. Say nothing and listen as heaven whispers, ‘Do you like it? I did it just for you.’” –Max Lucado, The Great House of God

Thankful Thursday – Wassailing

Last night, for the first time, we attended our high school’s holiday concert called The Wassail. When I asked Q14 if he’d like to attend, he asked about the unfamiliar word.

I sang the first line or two of the carol, enough to jog his memory, and explained that wassail is also a drink similar to mulled wine. So wassailing is caroling and drinking and celebrating the season.

In our town, Wassail is a tremendous holiday concert. Now that we’ve experienced it firsthand, I anticipate we’ll make attending it an annual tradition.

Up to 120 high school singers, plus instrumentalists for a few numbers, made unbelievable music like I’ve never heard. During one piece, as vocalists encircled the audience and literally surrounded us with song, I closed my eyes and nearly wept for sheer beauty.

And Christmas arrived. Not the actual day, that’s still next week, but the spirit of Christmas. I always pay attention for that moment when I feel Christmas. Some years it never comes, or comes after Christmas has ended. These talented young people ushered the Christmas spirit into my heart.

When I looked up wassailing, I read that the tradition has pagan roots, that men would put cider-soaked cakes under apple trees while banging pots and pans and singing in order to ward off bad spirits and exhort the trees to healthy production in the next year.

With all the Christmas and end-of-year activities, I’ve been feeling tired. I see it on others’ faces, too: the joy and the weariness. I am still tired today, but last night’s Wassail sure chased away some Grinchy bad spirits. Hearing those young people sing so beautifully, having invested so much of their time and heart into rehearsal, it reminded me that there is hope. We have hope.

This morning I met a friend for coffee. As we waited for our drinks, a man sporting one of those obnoxiously funny Christmas suits held open the front door as 20+ preschool children filed in. They lined up near the counter and started singing Jingle Bells. People got up from their seats to better see and hear them as they continued to sing three songs in all. One couldn’t help but silly-smile at so much cuteness.

Buddy the Elf was right: The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing loud for all to hear.

Advent 2018 Wk3 – Faith

The year C20 had his first birthday, Guy and I both turned 30 a few weeks before and after. Our birthdays span November to January so Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s got wrapped up in the fun. We created a list of small celebrations we could enjoy each day during those eight weeks, simple activities like sweetening a mug of hot chocolate with a candy cane, going for a walk together, or watching an animated Christmas movie. We celebrated our lives and the holidays with flair.

As I spent this last week reflecting on joy, I realized that I might be doing Advent wrong. Or, at least, wrong for me at this time.

Other than chomping the daily chocolates in our Advent calendar, I didn’t grow up with an Advent tradition. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was simply Christmastime, when we listened to Christmas music and shopped and wrapped and enjoyed the season.

I appreciate Advent for its thematic focus, its intentionality, its lens on waiting for Jesus. But over the years, our church has adopted a fuller Advent tradition, limiting Christmas music to Christmas Eve and the following Sunday (and the annual Christmas concert, the one exception to the rule) in favor of Advent hymns. And since there are only two popular Advent hymnsCome, Thou Long Expected Jesus and O Come, O Come, Emmanuel–the music sounds like the rest of the year. So even though I used to start listening to Christmas music in October while I planned the church Christmas materials, I have mostly stopped listening to Christmas music before Christmas.

And I’m missing it. I’m missing the joy. I’ve employed the discipline without reaping the benefit, and I’m sorrier for it. I feel dry and dour.

Perhaps traditional Advent observance might also necessitate the observance of the Twelve Days of Christmas–Christmas celebrations commencing on Christmas and lasting until King’s Day on January 6. But I’m not there; when Christmas is over, it’s over. And since so much of life necessarily involves waiting for Jesus, I want to enjoy Him now. I want to celebrate Him today. I don’t want to wait any longer.

Besides, there is way too much good Christmas music to limit it to a day.

Those of us who follow Jesus live in tension between the already and not yet. Jesus has come, and He will come again. We have the joy of salvation now, but we won’t experience the fullness of life in His Kingdom until the second coming. So we wait.

But why in the world am I intentionally limiting the joy of celebrating His birth? Sure, His birthday is next week, but He’s already here. This year the discipline feels a little absurd, like not talking to my son for the month before his birthday just because his birthday hadn’t yet happened… What sense would that make?

This week’s focus is faith, that God will direct our paths even (especially) when the way seems foggy. I’m staring intently down some foggy paths of my own, and I do believe that Jesus will show up, that He will hold my hand and walk gently with me. And I’m going to celebrate that reality today, with some Christmas music, even as I wait for His eventual arrival.

Week 3 – Joseph’s Faith 

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light three candles (two purple, one pink): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope, joy and faith.

Read Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

Read: A good man, Joseph found himself in what looked like a bad situation. While he quietly planned a way out, an angel assured him that he had no reason for fear: what seemed like bad news would be good news for everyone. Mary’s baby wasn’t just any baby—this would be God’s baby, Immanuel, God with us! When we accept God’s plan, God turns our fear to faith and our faith to joy.

Pray: Holy Spirit, where we feel fear, plant your seed of faith. Grow our faith into joy in your presence. In the name of Jesus, we wait and pray. Amen.

Monday Deuteronomy 7:8-9 How does God’s faithfulness inspire your faithfulness to Him?
Tuesday Psalm 93:1 How do you hang on in faith that God is in control?
Wednesday Isaiah 26:3-4, 12 What worries do you need to put in God’s hands?
Thursday John 14:27 Let go of your troubles and receive Jesus’ peace.
Friday Colossians 1:3-4 Who can you thank God for as an example of faith in Christ?
Saturday Hebrews 11:1 How do you define faith?

Suggested Activities
Make a list of things in which you put your faith, for example, that your alarm will go off in the morning or that the lights will come on when you flick the switch. Try to count as least ten. Then ask: Is it (or, why is it) sometimes easier to trust in these mundane things than to trust in the God who sent His Son Jesus to be our Savior?

Incorporate silence into your daily routine and use it as a chance to talk with God. Drive with the radio off. Go for a quiet hike. Sit in silence with your morning cup of coffee. Read your Bible, and let God share with you His perspective on what you’re facing each day.

Journal
When have you seen God show up in your unexpected or unwanted circumstances? Where do you need to experience His presence currently?

“It is faith that what happens to me matters to God as well as to me that gives me joy, that promises me that I am eternally the subject of God’s compassion, and that assures me that the compassion was manifested most brilliantly when God came to us in a stable in Bethlehem.” –Madeleine L’Engle, Glimpses of Grace

Advent 2018 Wk 2 – Joy

Lately I have been impressed with stories of joy: people enduring difficult circumstances with genuine smiles lighting their faces and claims of, “Laugh or cry, I choose to laugh,” or “I was born a happy child,” or “I choose to do something I enjoy every day.” People who, in witness to others’ difficult circumstances, decide to get their hands dirty and serve, to make life that much easier or better for someone else, and discover joy in the shared experience.

Unlike happiness, tied to experiences that easily elicit smiles and laughter, joy is a choice. A decision to rejoice even when the circumstances don’t seem to warrant it. A connection to God who is the source of all true joy.

Like young Mary who, when greeted by a mysterious messenger with mind-boggling news–Hey, Mary, you’re going to birth God’s baby…–responded, Let it be, and My spirit rejoices in God who has remembered His humble servant…

Happy comes easy. Joy requires intention, effort.

I wore an audaciously bright pink scarf to church today (atop a gray/black pant/sweater set) and mentioned to someone that the scarf was in honor of Mary’s joy. Eyes wide, she chuckled, incredulous that I would match my outfit to Advent. Well, I suppose that’s an insight to the odd workings of my mind!

And, yes. We can find hot pink joy against a dark background. We can find joy in a cute Christmas mug filled with messy clumps of hot chocolate. We can find joy in the homemade and gifted decoration even though the mirror has cracked. We can seek–and discover–joy in the clumpy, broken, messy, difficult parts of life… That’s kind of the whole point: we rejoice in God with us, because God walks with us through life.

 

Week 2 – Mary’s Joy

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light two candles (purple): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope and joy.

Read Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, 46-49

Read: The angel announced, “Mary, highly favored one, the Lord is with you,” and Mary rejoiced at the role she would play in the coming of the Son of the Most High. God’s Spirit whispers to each one of us, “You, too, are God’s servant, with a special role to play in God’s story.” The story may turn and twist in ways we can’t anticipate but let us say “Yes!” to God’s calling and rejoice in His presence.

Pray: We rejoice in God our Savior who has been mindful of His humble servants. In the name of Jesus we wait and pray, Amen.

Monday 1 Samuel 8:6-7 How can you rejoice in Jesus your King today?
Tuesday Psalm 5:11 How does God’s protection increase your joy?
Wednesday Habakkuk 3:17-19 How can God increase your joy even when times are difficult?
Thursday Acts 16:33-34 How does believing in God give you joy?
Friday Galatians 5:22-23 Ask the Spirit to increase your joy.
Saturday Jude 24-25 Read these verses aloud as joy-filled praise to our good God!

Suggested Activities
Make a list of ways you can spread Christmas joy, such as:
Take a Christmas treat or poinsettia to someone who lives alone.
Find a way to serve someone, for instance, clean an older neighbor’s gutters.
Invite friends to join you for a cookie decorating party and/or viewing of a favorite Christmas movie.
Create handmade thank you cards and attach candy canes for your teachers or church leaders.
Gather a group and go caroling.
Pray over each Christmas card you receive, inviting God to rain joy over each household.

Advent 2018 Wk1 – Hope

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who admitted she is looking forward to the holidays and, truly, next year. She’s had a rough few months and needs some joy and a fresh start.

Same. And, from conversations with others, I know we aren’t alone. It seems so many people are up against so many things; the weight of the world feels like too heavy a burden, and we’re wondering if we might buckle.

It feels right that Advent more or less closes out the calendar year, this season of waiting to celebrate our Savior’s birth, waiting for joy, waiting for new beginnings. More than ever I need this spiritual reset of my focus. I need to meditate on hope, joy, faith, and wonder. I need to get caught up with the One who loves me more than I will ever comprehend. I need to worship, not just on Sundays but throughout the week, the Prince who freely rains peace that passes understanding on His beloved people.

During Advent we prepare room in our hearts for the joyful arrival of the Baby Jesus. He has come, He is coming, and He will come again. As one writer so eloquently put it:

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.” ― Alfred Delp, Advent of the Heart

In our church and home, we use an Advent wreath to meditate on the meaning of God’s coming. Every aspect of the tradition is symbolic: the Wreath (a circle) signifies eternity—God is, was and always will be. There are four candles on the perimeter of the wreath. Three purple candles represent royalty and repentance; one pink candle (for week three) represents joy. The white center candle represents the divine nature of the baby Jesus. Evergreens represent everlasting life in Jesus and His everlasting love for us. The candlelight itself symbolizes Jesus, the Light of the World. If you need to keep it simple, all you really need is five candles, four to make a circle and one in the middle.

I wrote the following for our congregation and plan to share each week here as well. May God fill your life this Advent season with His light, His love, His joy, His hope.

Week 1 – The People’s Hope

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Light the first candle (middle purple candle): We light these candles to celebrate Jesus, the Light of the world, who comes into the darkness to bring hope.

Read Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7

Read: Though now we trudge in darkness through our daily toil, we do not fear because our hope is in you. Sunbursts of light will illuminate our way to you as we joyfully anticipate the birth of this baby who will bring peace, justice and righteousness. We will rejoice before you then and forever when we see the face of our Mighty God, our Prince of Peace.

Pray: Father God, we joyfully anticipate the birth of your Son. In His name we wait and pray, Amen.

Monday 1 Kings 8:56-58 How does God’s presence fill you with hope and joy?
Tuesday 2 Chronicles 13:12 What hope does it give you that God is your leader?
Wednesday Psalm 46:1-3, 7 How can God’s presence turn your fear into hope?
Thursday Ephesians 1:4-6 What encouragement do you have from being chosen by God?
Friday Colossians 1:27 What does “the hope of glory” look like in your life?
Saturday 1 Peter 1:3-5 Describe the “living hope” you have in Jesus.

Suggested Activity: In anticipation of all the season’s celebrations, have a conversation with your family (or yourself) about hope. What emotions are primary as they think about the holidays, and why? Which events does each person expect to attend, and what do they hope for those gatherings? What do they hope will be on the holiday menu? Do they hope to receive certain gifts? What hopes do they have for extending charity? When the new year dawns and they look back on this month, what do they hope to have experienced and/or accomplished? How do they hope to have encountered God?

Merry Christmas – The Messiah Has Come

“O Lord, you are the musician, and we are all your instruments. You breathe, and we come to life. You breathe, and we are horns for your glory. You blow through the world the winds of the spirit, and we like chimes cannot keep silent. You pluck the strings of our hearts, and we become a psalm. You come, and we must sing.”
–Walter Wangerin, Preparing for Jesus

Read and light all candles: The first candle represents the Child of the Virgin. The second candle represents the King. The third candle represents the Prince of Peace. The fourth candle represents the Savior. The center candle represents Jesus, the Messiah.

Say aloud together: Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Read Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Read: Hello, sweet baby Jesus, lying in a manger. We’ve been expecting you, Messiah! We’ve prepared for your birth, Child of the Virgin. We’ve anticipated the arrival of our King Jesus. And oh, how we have been longing for you, our Prince of Peace. Now it’s Christmas Eve, and here you are, announced by angels and guarded by shepherds and livestock. We’re so glad you’re here, since we need you now more than ever. We’re not very good at waiting, but we will keep expecting you, preparing for your next Advent, when you will gather your people to be with you forever.

Pray: Everlasting Father, thank you for sending us your Son, our Messiah Jesus. In His precious name we will rejoice forever, Amen.