Erin James-Brown

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A Mother’s Love: Sappy and/or Embarrassing

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1 Thessalonians 2:7b-13: We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

I’m not a very athletic person. I don’t know if you can tell from my soft arms or extremely skinny calves, but I have never been much for sports. My hand-eye coordination is so bad I have trouble correctly lifting a cup of water to my lips without spilling let alone throwing or catching a ball. My poor coordination plagued me throughout my childhood. After many failed attempts at T-ball, karate and gymnastics, I gave my grace-lessness one more try. At that time, the roller skating rink was the coolest place a fourth grader could hang out. Racing, video games, popsicles and couples skate: you name it, magical things happened at the roller skating rink. Every time my day care went to the roller-skating, I dreamed of speeding past boys twice my size and sliding across the finish line with triumphantly blazing wheels. I wanted to be the best roller skater ever.

So my mom faithfully signed me up for figure roller-skating. Now figure roller-skating is not a very popular sport. It is kind of like ice figure skating with a lot less glamour, glitter and chilly elegance. Plus, it’s not very competitive because only four or five people in the whole world practice it. This was the sport for me.

Every Saturday morning, I put on my tasteful red skating skirt, bright white skates with matching gleaming wheels, and maneuvered out on to the rink. I watched as girls four or five years older moved like gazelles across the smooth surface. Their muscular legs bulging with every stroke propelling them faster as they prepared for jumps, spins and graceful arm dancing motions. In comparison, my stick-like legs heaved to lift the gargantuan skates and move across the floor. As time progressed, I gained more confidence with my abilities to glide on eight wheels underneath the glow of a disco ball. I learned to stop using a traditional toe stopper rather than smacking into dirty brown, carpeted walls. I could make figure eights backwards and forwards with ease. It seemed I had overcome my fear and inability to coordinate my body to do as I my brain commanded. Until… one highly anticipated Saturday morning, I woke early with butterflies in my stomach. With difficulty I pulled on my glossy tights and form fitting skating uniform. When my parents and I arrived at the rink there was a buzz in the air. It was competition day. Skaters from all over the surround area arrived to be judged according to their routines and abilities… so there were like five competitors there. As my turn approached, I skated out onto the rink to the cheers of my parents in a practically empty room. Still, I was nervous. As the music swelled, I began to display my limited knowledge of figure roller-skating dance by waving my arms around a bit and swizzling my feet left and right. I don’t remember the routine or song to which I performed. All I remember is at the closing of the program I performed a single legged spin. My heart leapt in my throat as my feet approached the exact spot on the floor where I should enter the rotation. As I swung my body into position, I prepared to maintain balance for several consecutive turns. However, before I could even get into position, I over compensated, throwing my body into a hard right spin. My heavy skates slipped out from underneath my angular frame carrying my skinny legs above me. My bony bottom crashed to the floor as my boyish haircut flew in my face. The music blared as the two audience members – my parents - loudly gasped. In mortification, I pulled myself up off the floor as best I could. My shaky legs could not twist back into a spin. Instead I finished the rest of the routine, replaying scenes from the triumphal disgrace of the bobsled team from Cool Runnings in hopes that I still maintained a shred of my ten year-old dignity. After the music concluded I left the floor with my ears sunk between my shoulder blades. I was afraid to approach my coach, a mean spirited task-master. Even more so, I was embarrassed to approach my parents. I knew their hard work and money for lessons had not paid off how they had anticipated. After the obvious awkwardness in my performance, along with the tumble, my parents probably knew their daughter would not be a figure rolling-skating star.

Just as parents hope for the prosperity and successful-ness of their child, Paul mentions parental support for both the Thessalonians and himself in this passage. Interestingly, he refers to the Thessalonians as a mother, caring for and nursing her young. Previously Paul was run out of town, chased by people who despised him. He was physically and emotionally worn out. The Thessalonians offered respite and encouragement after a tiring journey. They nurtured and nestled the believers with tenderness in hopes of restoration. In return, Paul and his followers became like a parent to the Thessalonian church by “urging and encouraging” concerning a life worthy of God, who calls them into God’s kingdom and glory. Paul’s mutual references to parental love, nurture, and support reveals the intimacy of his relationship with the Thessalonians. In the beginning the church provided physical nourishment for he and Silas. In turn, Paul offered spiritual guidance, bold encouragement and a longing for the future joys among Christians of the church.

Parental care, as described by Paul here seems to be focused on preparing people for the coming of Christ through work and skill. He says,

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.”

Later in chapter four, he encourages them to lead a quiet life, working hard with their hands so they are not dependent on others (4:11b-12). By warning and preparing the Thessalonians for the challenges ahead, Paul hopes to arm them with skills for the future. His love transcends the present moment in Thessalonica to reminds of his constant care in anticipated events. Much like Paul’s experience, the Thessalonians could encounter devastating persecution, theological challenges and internal dissention. Paul’s instruction hopes to prevent wrestlings among the community and maintain a sense of peace and unity. However, is this a true parental image to follow? Are we to be like Paul, urging our children and fellow believers to practice and grow in talent in order to be successful individuals?

Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Parents possess the responsibility of prosperity and instruction for their children in the right ways in hopes of a flourishing adulthood. In turn children obey their parents, as Paul often advises, and everyone turns out to be non-dysfunctional human beings. That’s parenting right? According to Paul is parenting the guidance in order to make victorious, upstanding children of God? Or is there something more?

There are moments in our life, when we fall, when our flimsy bodies won’t carry us any further and we need the comfort and guidance of a nursing parent. Paul exhausted his resources and energies when he approached Thessalonica. Wearily, he dragged himself, along with his disciples, into the city looking for work, companionship and comfort. The Thessalonian Gentiles who listened and believed Paul’s words about Jesus Christ took it upon themselves to provide tender care for the man and his followers. They worked alongside him, cheered him on through difficult situations and remained loyal friends despite persecution. Paul says referring to himself as a child,

“We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

As the fellow believers of Thessalonica cared for Paul, so Paul grew to appreciate and love the generous nature of his friends in the city. In turn, the apostle sought to maintain a healthy relationship with his fellow Christians. He worked in order to support himself, without creating debts or selfish laziness while he live among them. The relationship went beyond merely words, telling of Jesus life, death and resurrection. The Christians with Paul shared their life’s work, life’s secrets and life’s passions with their friends. Their relationship blossomed under the ideas of understanding and acceptance.

My first figure rolling skating competition was my last figure roller skating competition. After removing the white weights of disgrace from my scrawny ankles of shame, I walked up to mom and dad with disappointment. From my jerky movement out on the floor in addition to my collapsed spin move, my mother and father had packed up their dreams of a coordinated child. They would never attend basketball games, cheer-leading camps, or dance recitals. They accepted the fact that their only child walked a little like the Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator and danced a lot like Sponge Bob Square Pants. My parents would have to settle for sitting through three-hour long high school plays with poor British accents, making posters to elect Erin for student council and driving long distances to debate tournaments filled with overdressed nerds in ill-fitting suits. But that day, as I approached my parents, sweaty with disappointing anxiety, my mom brought me in for a hug and smiled brightly. “You were so brave,” she said to her tiny daughter. “Even though you fell, you go right back up.” It turns out, they give everyone a metal, whether you fell or not. I pinned my prize onto my team sweatshirt and carried my heavy gym bag out of the rink. To my parents’ relief I quit figure roller-skating a few weeks later.

Paul’s words of maternal and paternal imagery tell the story of deep human love in the present. Love is not an investment in the future, where you hope to make a profit. Love is the gift of dignity and respect that another human being deserves just because he or she is a human being. As Christians we give of ourselves, extravagantly, in order to communicate the gospel message. Our goodness is not based on occupation, hobby, or skill. Our saintliness is part of who we are. We make our work and lives holy and communicate love through our words, actions, and attitudes. This does not mean we do not get angry, disappointed or scared. In fact, it is just the opposite. By being truly ourselves, we display who God created us to be. And by embracing ourselves, we open up our souls to others, welcoming their true personhood to the table as well. We act as mother and father, loving and encouraging others. In addition, we have spiritual mothers and fathers of the faith who carries us along during difficult times. These saints, like Paul and the Thessalonians, inspire us to live with courage making everyday holy.

The love of spiritual parentage does not calculate success, does not find utter disappointment in failure and does not plan for future expectation of fulfillment. Instead, the challenge and joy of spiritual parenting, celebrates the love of the present – a present without honors or a rational reason to celebrate accomplishment.

Filed under Mothers mother's day mom Paul Thessalonians parenting

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Peace Be with You: A Paradoxical Season

John 20:19-21 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Recently I was walking with a friend along the tiny river next to our house. Our dogs walked alongside with tongues happily hanging out the sides of their mouths. As we leisurely strolled back and forth the water’s edge, we discussed the feelings of Easter Sunday. “When I was younger I didn’t get it,” I admitted to her. The idea of waking up one morning to celebrate after a long time of suffering through life, working hard and never receiving justice did not make sense. It was a façade. And everyone was in on it. All of sudden people clapped, smiled and played nice. I had heard of Lent, the leading up to the Crucifixion, the period of abstaining and waiting. How did these church people produce such joy and rejoicing after a long time of silence, brooding sadness and growing anger? Often times, I was not ready to shed my sadness – to move into the joy of Easter.

“And what about the Monday after Easter?” I asked exasperated to my friend. For a few hours out of the day, Christians pretended not to be dysfunctional, not to feel regret, sorrow or anxiety. But following the service, those entrenched emotions of everyday seasons returned. “Easter is a hoax!” I wanted to proclaim but withheld my comment for fear of sounding brash and irrational. (So, I mention it on a blog for anyone else can read? Good idea.)

My friend listened to me and in her thoughtful and kind way. She did not seemed shocked, but rather intrigued, by my grapplings with the Easter season. She affirmed my doubt, my anger and my frustrations with a nod.

I always sympathize with the doubters, the blasphemers. I understand their need for proof, their fear of miracles, and their practical thinking. Death makes sense to me. Letting others down, I do that on a daily basis. But re-awakening from death, a spiritual and physical reappearing, that’s crazy. Overwhelming happiness in the midst of sadness, peace when all I hear about is war, they all seem paradoxical.

Much like my arrested state in Lenten sorrow, Thomas remains in the dark of Jesus’ resurrection. Left behind and left out from the experience of a miraculous Jesus sighting, Thomas remains faithful to his doubt until a week later. Face-to-face with the truth of Jesus’ presence, Thomas realizes the inhabitant of Jesus and his living, yet changed mysterious being. Jesus passed through locked doors, something more impressive than David Copperfield because it was not commercialized or flashy. And in his amazement, Thomas stands agape in front of his teacher whom he saw die a gruesome death. And Jesus like the other times (three total, in fact) he approached followers in this new way, extends peace. In the midst of chaos, in the midst of grief, Jesus shares peace with Thomas.

Although my initial perceptions of Easter Sunday did not make sense, Jesus speaks to my confusion in his address to Thomas and the other disciples. There is sadness, yes. There is war, death and anxiety, yes. Jesus does not gloss over these juxtapositions. Instead he acknowledges them. It is as if he says, “Despite it all, there will be peace.” This is the true mystery of Easter, the true definition of joy. Easter, joy and resurrection are not the absence of sadness, war or grief. Instead, they are an acceptance of it all. It is the complexity of the human experience. Love in the midst of hate.  Joy in the midst of grief. Peace in the midst of conflict.

Peace be with you.

Filed under peace Jesus Thomas doubt Lent Easter resurrection

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Seeing Red: Apostles and Equality

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Acts 5:27-32 When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

In the previous verses (not listed here), the apostles found themselves behind bars, punished for healing many while the religious leaders fumed with jealousy in the shadows.

After their miraculous escape from the prison and continued preaching despite persecution, the apostles again found themselves in hot water, this time before the counsel of the high priest for questioning. In the face of intimidating leadership, the threat of abuse and further hardship, Peter merely replied, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”  This is the common response of the apostles throughout their ministry in Acts. Hardship, disappointment, and arrest do not deter them from continually proclaiming the news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Others - Saducees, Pharisees, those who create measurements of acceptance into the religious community, those who place themselves above others as more devote and more pious - become anxious, jealous, fearful even, of the apostles’ following, of the changing opinion. These others attempt to squelch this new understanding of freedom, forgiveness and divinity only to be thwarted by a seemingly unstoppable force: People obedient to God.

Last week my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any other feeds bled across my iPhone screen. The social media trend to change profile pictures, update status and like or comment on anything pertaining marriage equality was overwhelming. The Supreme Court gathered to hear cases concerning the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 of California. People marched in the streets and tweeted remarks. And like an Arab Spring, people organized, expressed their views and “took to the streets” online by changing profile pics to equals symbol with a cherry red backdrop. Equality for love. Equality for marriage. I must say I didn’t join the bandwagon. Although I remain open about my opinion of equality for all people, I rarely surf Facebook, let alone know how to update my picture with the social media provider’s seemingly ever-changing privacy policy. Instead, I marveled as people I knew, people I thought I knew and people I assumed I knew well enough, professed opinions with a simple image.

And just like that, people came out of their respective closets. Allies with gay friends or relatives shared their support. Those who grappled late at night with biblical passages regarding sexuality, equality and love silently spoke up. More who felt it was a no-brainer, an obvious choice and push towards acceptance and love joined the red movement. Opinions were public for all mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins to see. As I watched the people I know and love step out to proclaim equality of marriage, I took a deep breath. “This can’t be easy.” I thought. Whether intentional or not, the updated profile picture is an invitation to comments, dialogue and a new way of presenting one’s self.

I am sure you have a story or know someone who received an email/text/comment from a distant relative. Whether snarky or thoughtful, the conversation opened wide. “Really? You too?” or “Let’s talk.” Whatever it may be, likes, re-tweets, favorites and pins trended throughout technological devices to create a real conversation. And my favorite, most frustrating comment: “Really? You too?” Like the apostles, kicked down several times, frustrated by constant imprisonment, squelched voices, persecution, mockery and maltreatment, dragged before the public, they continued to proclaim. Like the apostles, many have opened themselves to a new way of being, of relationship with others and it’s not all pretty and nice. But the importance of last week’s social media protest is a testament to the conviction of belief. Whether you changed your profile picture or (like me) not, the news is out there. The conversation has started. And the replay to those comments of “Really? You too?” is a reflection of the apostles’ words.

Sick of intimidation and fear, inspired by others brave enough to wear the scarlet symbol of equality, many stand together to say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” 

Filed under equality marriage equality DOMA Prop 8 LGBT Jesus justice

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Economics of Justice: The gift of Joy

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Isaiah 12:2-6 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

After writing about the fear, loneliness and depression of the holiday season, I find it difficult to transition to this week’s Advent theme: Joy.  But the prophet Isaiah’s words draw me out of my dark shell of sadness and into a time of delight. If I feel like reason to complain, I remember the plight of the Jewish people to whom Isaiah speaks. Exiled from their homeland and worshiping community, the Jews experience loneliness and desolation. And out of the pain of the moment, the prophet Isaiah abolishes fear based on God’s salvific nature. In addition, Isaiah foreshadows the joy to come, which will be irrepressible. “In that day” the Jews will proclaim the goodness of God and the joy felt by God’s kept promises.

But this language concerning banishment of fear and irrepressible joy is an impractical message outside the church. The language of exalt, praise, and glory recede in fashionable circles to be replaced by happiness, fulfillment or self-improvement. The strange language of the church is in tension with the world of competition, advancement and consumerism. It makes sense that the church language of grace, mercy, gift, and joy don’t make sense to a world which operates on dollar signs, competition and financial growth. In addition, a life without fear means a life uncontrolled by money, self-promotion and status. Joy is not based on wealth consumed but a wealth of appreciation. The language of the church, gift, joy and grace, although alien to the outside secular world, attempts to communicate the inner most feelings of humanity.

Therefore the language of grace is not about what people contribute to the world, but the mere fact that a person is unique and offers a new personal perspective on existence, relationship and God. A Christian language of economics values others based on life experience, not education, social status or wealth accrued. And the joy expressed by Isaiah and the people of God is the joy of existence.

Filed under economics justice Christmas Advent language joy gift

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The realism of loneliness: Is there room for joy in the midst of fear?

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Zephaniah 3:14-20 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 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.

After several judgment oracles against the sinfulness, idolatry and pride of God’s people, Zephaniah concludes with an oracle of salvation. I the midst of destruction, the prophet encourages listeners to banish fear and remember God’s presence.

After presenting devastating news through previous oracles, why does the prophet attempt to end with a positive reflection? His lame attempt to provide joy in a bleak moment of judgment seems wasteful. Much like a commercial for the latest erectile dysfunction drug, the long list of awkward and painful side effects outweighs the smiles of actors sitting in bathtubs in the middle of a rainforest.

In the midst of excessive spending for unused Christmas gifts or the pressure to pretend to be a familial family despite death or anger, there is a pervasive fear during the holiday season. Another year comes to a close, and we fear insignificance, the significance of self-worth or contribution. We fear the political decisions or indecisions of 2012. We fear the loss and shame of life. What sense of joy is found in this fear?

After listening to a story about him on the radio, I wanted to research the paintings of Edward Hopper and his portrayal of the fearfully lonesome spirit. Edward Hopper was an American realist painter who conveyed the lonesome aspect of his subjects. He painted lonely individuals surrounded by an expansive canvas. And his perspective portrayed the understanding of solitude. One of his most famous paintings, Morning Sun, depicts a young woman seated on the bed by a window. Wearing only a short pink nightgown, she stares out the window at the city. Her room is poorly lit. The darkness pervades her expression as she looks out with despair, clutching her knees close to her chest for comfort. Completed in 1952, we presume Hopper’s wife, Josephine, was the model for his iconic masterpiece of a lonely woman. Ed Hopper grew in popularity throughout the Great Depression. His success kept permitted him to continue painting professionally. His wife, Jo, on the other hand never became a successful artist. She aspired to be an actress. In the shadow of her husband’s popularity, Jo grew increasingly frustrated with a lack of recognition. Without her own acting career, she insisted on being his only model. Working out of her personal fear of insignificance, Josephine created her personal legacy through her husband’s portraits of lonely individuals. And perhaps her loneliness inspired his the sadness of his artwork.  Although Ed’s paintings explored the use of light and spatial/emotional association, there is some hope in his capture of the imploring woman in Morning Sun. As she looks out from her bleak room, there is a new day rising. Her face does not reflect a personal sense of hope, but the dawn of a new experience and chance to contribute provides a viewer with the understanding that life exists outside the bare walls of her room. That is the beauty of Hopper’s painting. In the midst of struggle or sadness, there is hope. That is the beauty of Josephine’s life. Although not an actress on stage, she acted regularly as she portrayed the emotion, which captured by her husband, would last much longer than a single performance.

Just as God promises the Israelites, through the prophet Zephaniah, to be present during Josiah’s reign, so the Divine joins humanity on earth through a baby. Emmanuel. God with us inspires a glimpse of joy in the midst of fear. And there is salvation from the loneliness because God goes with us.

Filed under insignificance fear joy loneliness prophet Advent Christmas Jesus spirituality culture art Edward Hopper

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Creativity and true hope as a new reality

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

This lection reading celebrates the First Advent of the Messiah’s arrival on earth. However, in chronological order this passage occurs after Jesus’ birth, growth and development into adulthood. John the Baptist lays the foundation for Jesus’ ministry to the world, but his language of final eschatological salvation sounds more like the preparation for the Second Advent when the world is restored to order and justice prevails.

As ministers and lay leaders stand up to read the passage of proclamation on Sunday morning, however, the awesome wonders of John’s words do not terrify or amaze. For members of the 21st century (and especially people living the DFW area) straightened paths, lowly hills and smoothed roughness does not sound all that difficult. Bulldozers and plows clear paths for roads quickly and highways allow for speedy travel. The imagery of an open road is not as applicable to those who travel as quickly or easily as a car on I-20 high tailing to Abilene (Abilene, Tx not the one mentioned in Luke’s gospel).

John’s imagery of flattening and straightening as a physical event is not the purpose of this passage. Instead, further removed from the event, the reader discovers an understanding of action and result. The hard work and toil of creating roads, of forging a path and progressing toward a future story is not limited to construction but engenders more image of action. As Christians, we work hard to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. There are canned food drives, ESL classes, and community gardens. But outside of a traditional church building there are also people shopping locally, buying fair trade products, and living in community with one another. Still there are people marching in gay parades supporting the rights of him or herself or a loved one. There are educational forums concerning sex trafficking. And there are works of art displaying the imaginative beauty of individual creative thinking. John the Baptist’s words are not outdated because of developments in technology. Instead his words inspire new images of action and invite Christians into the innovative process of God’s work on earth.

More importantly John’s words to not end with ordinations for flattening and straightening but envision a day when the flesh will see the salvation of God. The hard work of providing justice for all, the toil of living in community with others and the challenge to continue proclaiming a gospel of peace when surrounded by violence and pain finds resolution in the end. With the promise of the First Advent and the birth of Jesus the world experienced the radically new vision of inspired hope for the world. As we await the Second Advent with great anticipation, we move forward knowing our creativity will not end but God’s true hope for the world will become reality.

Filed under Luke Advent Christmas Jesus

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Another year gone? What is the future of the Church?

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Paul visited the fledgling community of Thessalonica on his missionary journey as recorded in the book of Acts. In his absence, the small church plant thrived, and upon Timothy’s visit to the community, Paul was pleasantly surprised by the report of the church’s development.  In his letter, Paul gives thanks his brothers and sisters and longs to return to their company. In addition, Paul prays for his fellow believers. He prays for direction, love, strength and holiness. His prayer encompasses all needs or expressions as the young church looks toward the future full of hope and anticipation.

Unlike the tender community in Thessalonica, the Christian church of present day is not fresh and vibrant with excitement and anticipation. The songs seem old, the people in the pews do not seem to grow younger, and the financial (church or denominational) giving has waned. And in the new era of church life, Paul’s motivating prayer elicits yawns from a crowd who have read the passage many time before. And the future of the western Christian church does not look so hopeful, nor do people imagine its future as a grand adventure. Instead, numbers decline, members die, visitors (if they show up) do not stick around long, budgets shrink and ministries disappear. Has everyone given up on God? Has the world turned to Twitter, Apple products and the Huffington Post for understanding rather than tapping into the internal stirring of spirituality?

Although our language about God has changed, I don’t believe our need for God in life has faltered. Generally speaking, people no longer congregate at the church for town hall meetings. It is not the place of socialization in society. However, the language of humanity has not changed. People still grasp for hope, long for love and seek fellowship. In the midst of illness, crisis or despair, people still cry out for strength, direction and justice. And much like with the newly converted Thessalonians, God is present in the hope and anticipation that tomorrow will be a better day.

In the darkness of December evenings and chilliness of foggy mornings, the church reaches back into the history of a year’s growth and experiences. In addition, the church remembers the losses and sadness of those dead and gone. At the same time, the church anticipates the story of the birth of Christ and the hope of Christ’s eventual return. It is not a new story. The birth and reign of Christ stretches back into our religious memories until, most of us, cannot recall the first time we heard the tale. But we expect to be present in the coming months or years to retell the story of birth, death and resurrection. And in the middle realm of past memories and future promises, the church looks to the present of the advent moment, the hope of the present in God’s company. We give thanks for our ancient community and say a similar prayer to that of Saint Paul: Give us direction, increase our love, enable us with strength that may we act with justice. Although we are old, tired and possibly not thriving, we are present, drawing near to God as God draws near to us.

Filed under future new year past spirituality culture Paul lectionary Advent

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The Righteousness of the Christmas Season

Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

These few verses from Jeremiah crop up in the midst of a message of death and destruction. While in exile, the Israelites experience persecution, destitution and longing for their home with God. And in their despair, Jeremiah does not provide words of peace or hope but words of righteousness and justice. It is an odd reading for the season of Advent. As we prepare to tell the enchantingtales of wandering Magi, serenading angels and a melodic Mary, our celebration is hampered by the harsh struggle of the human experience as exemplified by the Israelite people.

The cycle of sinfulness, destruction and restoration follows the people of God throughout history. The cycle repeats itself in my own life. And, much like previously mentioned, the moments of destruction and despair culminate in the season often attributed to peace and happiness. Commercials parade stories of bows atop luxury cars, diamond necklaces that last forever, and puppies scrambling out from under the Christmas tree. The magic of these lavish moments does not always resonate with those struggling to pay for gifts or families who do not assemble gladly around a holiday meal, if they assemble at all. In fact, the cold, dark nights of winter can be lonely. After naming the lonely sadness of the advent season, the lection reading instructs the church to imagine justice out of despair. Despite the anguish of the long nights, God’s presence remains. Much like the branch, or tree image of Luke, by naming despair we empower our creativity to imagine justice. In the wake of pain, we seek freedom and comfort to the longing. And in the midst of it all we proclaim, along with Jeremiah, “The Lord, our righteousness.”

Advent signifies a new beginning, a new year, in the Christian church. Unlike January 1, Advent marks a different transition of Christ’s life on earth and the transformation of his presence. As I get older, the years seem to grow together. Each new year seems like the last. Very little changes and my life grows stale. I continue to eat similarly, I wash regularly, I sleep and walk, work and play. Each year I experience sadness, heartache, hope and joy. Although a new year seems similar to the last, it also carries the anticipation of the the unknown, the mystery of the things to come. In the midst of darkness, with expectation of difficult times as well as hopeful, there is the promise of righteousness. While the church lights Advent candles beginning the new year of the religious calendar, we carry the prophet’s proclamation of righteousness and justice into the mystery and expectation of the things to come.

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Stating the obvious: Dealing with Depression at Christmas time

Luke 21:25 “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 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 is a chapter of woeful warnings and devestating declaratioins. The apoclyptic langauge of stars, moons, and seas in distress develop anxiety within the reader whose heart begins to churn along with the swelling sea. Fear is so intense it causes people to faint as they attempt to cope with the stress of destruction. And all Jesus can say is “You know that the kingdom of God is near”? What sort of comfort does Jesus provide to those consumed with anxiety and grief except to state the obvious and offer a trite attempt at instruction, “Be on your guard… be alert.”

With the sleepiness of Thanksgiving wearing off and the excitement of holiday rising around me, I find myself flailing in my attempts to catch the Christmas spirit. Although every song I hear seems to say “Merry Christmas,” I do not welcome the festive season of glad tidings and baked apple pies.

Instead, my spirit sinks each morning as I drag my alarmingly heavy legs out from under the warm covers, to embrace the bitterly cold morning air of my bedroom. My trudge to my destination past the decorated trees and lighted angels with a heavy step and a sunken heart. Although there is no sea roaring around my North Texas town, my ravaged and depleted emotions rumble with deep sadness which Jesus speaks of in his gospel message.

Lacking in words of comfort or healing, Jesus speaks the truth about the coming age and preparation for the return of Christ. Death, sadness and sickness run rampant. Nature rebukes and fights back. And all Jesus can say is the obvious: This sucks. And it’s only going to get worse. For someone steeped in depression, this message only steeps me deeper in despair. And as I look to the Son of Man for light, inspiration and a glimmer of hope, I am greeted with his harsh truth of pain.

In the midst of recovery from Super-storm Sandy, death of adults and children in Gaza and a looming fiscal cliff, there are no words to comfort the broken hearted home-owners, mothers and fathers or concerned citizens. Instead, there is only heart ache and anxiety. And in a way, our only reponse to the looming problems of depression is similar to Jesus’ statements.

This sucks.

Sometimes just naming the problem, speaking it aloud strips it of so much power. By claiming the terror, the destruction or the pain, and naming the emotions felt because of it, one restores power to the self. Although often times, I feel powerless to my depression, by simply naming the anxiety as hurt, pain or fear, I stand over it. I look down on the sitaution and normalize my experience as inexplicably awful. And in that simple naming, claiming and statement, “This sucks” I find peace within myself once again. Jesus’ commands to be on one’s guard and alert doesn’t instruct one to action. He or she merely notices or states the obvious. “This sucks.” And by embracing the suckiness, it (whatever it is) no longer carries the power over you. Anxiety and fear may still remain, but the peace of courage and strenght begins with a clear and simple statement of the obvious in painful circumstances.

Filed under depression spirituality culture Christmas holiday