The Hope of Advent

Tonight we lit the first Advent candle. Different churches have different themes for their candles (and each Advent Sunday), but often today's theme is hope. In the biblical narrative, the world is waiting, hoping for the Messiah (Anointed One) to come and bring salvation to a people in distress and oppression. Today, we wait for the Christ (Anointed One) to return and bring peace, justice and restoration to a fallen world.

As we sat in church tonight, we sat amidst ambiguities. We participated in a moment of corporate quiet and active waiting. In passing the peace we took the hands of the person beside us and bowed to them, honoring them as well as acknowledging the Christ in them (St. Benedict exhorts us to see Christ in all people). As we blessed the bread and the cup, we acknowledged Christ's presence with us. And yet we wait for His return. Just as God's Kingdom is here now, but also not yet, so it is with Christ. He is with us, but we also await His return.

It is within these ambiguities that we catch a glimpse of hope. We wait, remembering Christ's first coming as we look forward to his second. There is hope knowing that as Israel waited for hundreds of years, the Messiah did come, so we can be assured of His promise to return. We acknowledge that Jesus is present with us when we gather in His name (as well as when we acknowledge the God-made image of the person before us); this assures us of the hope of His return.

Advent is like a nice walk on a winter's day. The rest of the world is zooming along on the interstate going from crowded shopping mall to crowded box store. But you intentionally decide to bundle up in your warm winter gear and go out into the snow-covered woods. You are enveloped in peacefulness as the sunshine glimmers on the snow and the only sounds are of the wilderness around you--a rustle of a cardinal's wings, a soft thud of snow dropping off a branch, the crunch of snow beneath your feet. It is quiet and calm, pure and barren, docile and wild. You are chilled, but the sunshine on your exposed skin gives a hint of warmth. You walk, soaking in the solitude while hoping to catch a reddish glimpse of an elusive fox or a royal cardinal. You notice how the snow has changed the familiarness of the landscape. Much is hidden. With so much less daylight and being indoors so much more, it feels good to be outside and move your body. And at the end of the walk you know the warmth of a fireplace and a mug of hot cocoa awaits.


Waiting for Advent

Tomorrow begins the season of Advent--the beginning of the church year. Advent is about waiting. In the biblical narrative we are waiting for the Messiah to come...in that 400+ year space between the Old Testament and the New Testament, waiting for what the prophets foretold to come true. And today we wait for the Messiah to return.

Advent is often overlooked. We tend to jump from Thanksgiving straight to Christmas (not to overlook the fact that Christmas decor has been out in stores since Halloween). Advent isn't popular. I went to find a family devotional to use during Advent, but found one choice in the Christian bookstore (there were a couple more for personal adult use, but only one option to use with kids). You won't find any Advent CDs (again we skip straight to Christmas songs, again). Outside of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" most churches sped little time in the Advent section of their hymnal.

We don't like to wait. The headlines of violence on Black Friday are a sign of that. Road Rage has come about due to our inability to wait. Wedding days don't have the magic they used to because we can't wait.

But could it be that waiting is good for us? That waiting could "develop character" as your parents might have quipped? Patience. Perseverance. Contentment. Waiting allows us to have time to reflect...on our humanity, our mortality, our blessings. Waiting, I dare say, can change us. It matters how we wait.

I'm not always good at waiting. I'm not always good at making the most of waiting. I'm doing some reflecting on waiting as I am working on a sermon for the second Sunday in Advent. I don't believe waiting means doing nothing, but that it means we are focused and intent as we wait. It may mean giving up some of our busyness in order to wait better.

As we begin this season of Advent, may the waiting be a blessing. Even if it's not always easy.


Giving Thanks

This was the first Thanksgiving in four years that my wife hasn't had to work. But she's got plenty of reading and other things to do for her grad work, so she wasn't up for traveling several hours to celebrate with Thanksgiving today.

So we had Thanksgiving at our house with friends from our old neighborhood in St. Louis Park. We haven't seen them in over a month. They just returned this last week from China with their new daughter. The boys have been looking forward to being with their good friends and meeting their new sister. So we're grateful for good friends to spend the day with. And the delicious food our wives made. And for a fun day together. And for seeing the smiling face of their new daughter. There was much to be thankful for.

I am also thankful that we don't have to get up early to try and find deals on things we don't need spending money we don't have (or, even worse, going out tonight as stores are already open on Thanksgiving night). Going shopping with hordes of people sounds soul-sucking to me right now. Maybe instead we could ruminate more on why we're thankful...maybe let our gratitude spur us on to do good deeds for those who don't have as much...maybe just having time with the kids that doesn't involve pulling out a credit card.

I'm all for getting the best deal on things and being good stewards of money. I just hate the juxtaposition of a day of gratitude followed by a day of intense consumerism.

But I'm a hypocrite, too. There is plenty I "preach" about that I don't always do well. Like communicating with my wife, putting God first, living simply...(I could go on, but you get the idea). So I guess above all, I'm thankful for grace, forgiveness and that God (and others) love an imperfect me.

For All Good Things....

"Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson



While I don't wish more work upon my pastor, I miss gathering at church for a Thanksgiving Eve service. This is probably mostly out of nostalgia, as it tended to be our small, rural Iowa churches that I have been a part of that held Thanksgiving services. This make sense as these churches are tied to the land, tied to the farmers who receive the fruits of their labors this time of year. There, hopefully, is much to be thankful for.

Part of the Thanksgiving Eve service was bringing forward our gifts for the world missions offering. We had soup cans with specially designed labels that looked like Campbells but said Covenant World Mission. We had been collecting change throughout the year; typically the children brought the change forward, placing the cans in a pile at the front of the church.

Church is a fitting place to be for giving thanks (not that we only give thanks at the end of November). Tonight we were with our small group from church. Tomorrow we gather with friends (we're not traveling to be with family this year).

Church groups, friends, family...all fitting places to give thanks. Circles of relationships God puts us in for the sake of experiencing Him, community, forgiveness, grace, mercy and love. Sometimes these relationships are hard...holidays can bring up painful memories and empty spaces.

No matter how difficult our circumstances may be, we all have things for which we can give thanks. There is something in the act of thanksgiving that changes us. It acknowledges that we cannot supply all our needs on our own; it takes our eyes of our selfish pursuits and desires. In giving thanks we must momentarily relinquish our envy, greed or unhappiness and give ourselves into a spirit of gratitude if only for a minute.

When our boys are being ungrateful or in a bad mood, we have them name five things they are thankful for. It's a good practice for us all. May tomorrow not be the only time we pause to give thanks. May you find moments to pause in gratitude each day.


Subbing and Serving

I've been substitute teaching for two weeks now. It's been good to be working some again, but it's not an easy job. Older grades especially don't respect you and you just deal with a lot of hassles and issues. And maybe you get to teach. Mostly I've been subbing for paraprofessionals. It seems to be the way you get your foot in the door in larger school districts (which I have never subbed in large school districts on principle, so this is a new journey).

The paraprofessional jobs have been the most rewarding so far. They pay less (unfortunately), but they tend to give you the most interaction as you tend to spend more focused time with students. I've been in one elementary classroom a couple of times now, which was fun to return to the second time, knowing many of the kids' names when I walked in the hallway. I worked mainly with two boys whose families had come from different parts of Africa. They have some developmental issues going on and can be moody at the drop of a pin, but they're also a delight to be around. During outside recess the other day, they were mad because they couldn't play in the snow on the playground because they didn't have boots or snowpants (any kids without--and there were several who didn't come to school with them--had to just play on the sidewalk). And I have a feeling these boys might not have snowpants and boots at home--nor the available resources to get them. (If your kids outgrow their snowpants and they're still good, please see if you can pass them on to kids who can't afford them at a nearby school.)

Today I was with high schoolers and young adults (18-21) with varying developmental disabilities. I know that some of the classes are rough to be in with some, as some students have behavioral issues and outbreaks. But overall it is highly rewarding. Honestly, today was one of the happiest work settings I've been in in a long time. Most of the other staff were really courteous and friendly. And the students are fun to be around. Yes, it's work...they need to be frequently kept on task or kept from doing things they shouldn't be doing. But they are also a lot of joy. They love to affirm and be affirmed, to give high fives and laugh and joke around.

For the most part, many of these students are kids that the world would classify as "the least of these." This past Sunday our text in church was from Matthew 25, where Christ the King sits on the throne and judges the nations, separating the sheep from the goats based upon how they served "the least of these"--the hungry, naked, thirsty, imprisoned. Jesus tells the sheep that when they served, they were serving Him. The goats are told that they missed out on seeing Christ because they didn't help those who needed help.

St. Benedict tells those who lived in his monastic communities to see Christ in everyone. We are all created in God's image: the immigrant child, the mentally retarded young adult, the imprisoned drug addict, the homeless vet on the street corner.

As much as there are days when I don't want to go to a school, there are also days when being there makes it easy for me to see Jesus. For that I am thankful.


Christ: the King

Today on the church calendar we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. As Americans we have a hard time understanding kingship. But if we call Jesus our Lord, we have pledged our allegiance to Him alone and, in theory--if not practice, made Him Lord over every area of our life. We have made the choice to let Him rule and have His say in our daily decisions.

Christ's reign has been referred to as "The UpsideDown Kingdom." He doesn't always go along with the social norms. Frequently He turns them upside down. The last in our society shall be first in His Kingdom. The social outcasts get attention, the lowly are raised up, the undesirables are given care. Disrespected women are looked in the eye. Those who couldn't afford health care are healed. The immigrant and alien are made a part of the family. The sinner is forgiven.

Christ chooses unlikely followers: fishermen, tax collectors, traitors. He makes leaders out of lowly people: Abraham, Moses, David. He expects His followers to stand up for the orphaned, the widowed, the alien, the oppressed (honestly--it's in the Bible, you can look it up!). He's not looking for the most qualified, but those who are willing to follow--no matter how much they mess up or how shady their past is.

It's the end of the church calendar year. Next week we begin anew in Advent, awaiting the coming of our King--celebrating both His incarnational coming as an infant and His future return in glory. How does the Lordship of the one who's birth we celebrate next month play out in your life?


Planning for the Holidays

Target and other big stores have been in the news lately because of outrage from some over these stores decisions to open on Thanksgiving night. Holidays are getting crowded out for the sake of revenue. Christmas decorations were in many stores before Halloween was over. I've seen people post a picture on facebook of a sign from Macy's stating that they won't put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, saying they believe in the importance of focusing on one holiday at a time.

We all know how stressful the holidays can be. Activities abound--not to mention all the money to be spent. If you've been around this blog before, you know that as a family we try and make space for holidays--and to keep them focused. I confess that Advent often sneaks up on me...so I'm trying to think ahead now (it helps that others at church are doing the same).

So, I'm hoping to get away in the next day or two to look for some family devotions for Advent. We try and do most of our shopping ahead of time (like in July when the toy sales happen). We also don't do many presents. The kids get one on St. Nicholas Day and one on Christmas morning. We try and make the season about giving (we try and do a couple boxes for Operation Christmas Child). We try to keep Advent in its place and not rush Christmas, but keep its twelve days.

It doesn't make sense to rush from a season of thanksgiving into a season of making lists of gifts we must have. Real gratitude should be seasoned with an outpouring of charity. And in the midst of it all is a season of waiting...waiting for the Christ Child to return as King (which we celebrate this week on Christ the King Sunday).

I encourage you to not let the holiday run you ragged, but to enter into the holidays with purpose. May the be a blessing as they were intended to be.


Expressing the Heart vs. a Pursuit

"When money becomes a means of the heart, it is good. But when money becomes the pursuit of the heart, life gets warped."
     - Gary Walter, President of the Evangelical Covenant Church



This past Sunday at church I was in a discussion on sacred places. Some one mentioned the sacredness of the circles we gather in: at church, around the meal table, in our living rooms at small groups. When we gather, we gather in circles. Tonight, we had people in our home to talk about world missions with someone from denominational missions office. We started in a circle around the table. We finished in a circle in our living room. Tomorrow night we will do the same with our small group from church.

Our church ancestors (alongside some other religions) were known as "The People of the Book" because of their devotion to God's Word. I decided that our local church should be known as "The People of the Circle." There is something sacred about circles. They have been a symbol of the eternalness of God. When we stand in circles we are connected. Our church rhythms are cyclical. Every year we begin anew on the first Sunday of Advent. We go through the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and the Ordinary times. And we find ourselves back in a new year. In many ways life is more cyclical than linear.

In the west, we tend to think of life and time as being linear. The east tends to be much more circular in their thinking. Literary scholars are quite familiar with circular narrative as many stories throughout history--from Beowulf to To Kill A Mockingbird--end in much the same manner as they began.

In our sanctuary at church we sit in a circle. Three rows of church surround the central altar. As we worship we are aware of the community we worship with--not just by the back of someone's head, but by their faces. When we sing The Lord's Prayer together we often hold hands in three concentric circles, the middle circle moving in the opposite rotation from the other two circles around the table. We get to see each person present as we move and worship.

Because of entrance points at each end of the room, the circle of chairs are really two semi-circles. They look like parenthesis in retrospect. And in many respects, our gathering for worship or in other circles is largely parenthetical. It brackets our daily routines as a beginning and end. Our circles frame who we are during the week--not workers but servants and followers.

And so we come back each Sunday and sit in our chairs for worship--not in rows. We are, after all, the people of the circle.


Benediction of Being

"May all that is unforgiven in you be released; may your fears yield their deep tranquilities; may all that is unlived in you blossom into a future graced with love."
     - John O'Donahue

Living in the Here and Now

"Just to be is a blessing...just to live is holy"
     - Rabbi Abraham Heschel

A Visit to St. Ben's

Today I went with four other people from our church (and a friend of one of them) to St. Benedict's Monastery for a Spiritual R&R Day retreat they offered to our church (as well as others). Three of us are in our mid-to-late thirties. The other two were almost twice our age. It was nice to have a mix and be able to talk with each other.

It was my first visit to a monastery. I've been wanting to go for a long time, but this was one of my first opportunities. The day was largely just an open day for spiritual renewal. We could sign up for a 10 minute healing touch neck massage (which was full) and a half hour of spiritual direction (which I did). Sister Josue gave an opening presentation on celebrating All Saints Day. Sister Eunice gave a closing prayer that was a nice end to the day. But what I looked forward to most was getting to attend prayer times with the community. The mid-day prayer was the only one we were there for, but it was a blessing. It was wonderful to hear the psalms sung and get to be part of the choir singing back to each other. My one desire for the day would have been to have had time to talk with the sisters more. There is much I would love to learn about monasticism (especially Benedictine) and to draw on their wealth of faith.

But the day did what it was designed to do--providing spiritual R&R. I hope to be able to spend more time down the road with that or other communities.

Sister Eunice shared from Matthew 11:29 in the closing prayer: "...learn from Me for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest..." Amen


Somewhere Beyond the Sea...

Our good friends are heading to China tomorrow. They're going to meet their daughter and bring her home with them. The word excitement would be and understatement. They've been waiting for this to happen for a while (though not as long as some in the adpotion process, I know). Their process really has gone quite quickly--but I know it can feel like eons at the same time.

They have boys the same age as ours (which is very convenient). Actually we got to know each other because our oldest and their oldest became best friends in Kindergarten. And then we moved--just as we were getting to know each other well. Granted, we're in adjoining cities, but it's not as convenient as when we lived in the same school. Or the same neighborhood for that matter. 

I don't say this to be judgmental of anyone else, but I laud them for adopting. They could have poured a lot of money into IVF or other means of having a baby themselves. They chose to seek out a child who didn't have parents to take care of her and make her their own. This is valuing life.

We've been praying for them (they requested it, but we would have prayed anyway). It'll be a big transition for their family. When the boys come home (they're spending time with their grandparents while their parents fly to China) they will have a new sister. Not a baby, but an 18-month old. An 18-month old who won't understand the words they say (except for the few Chinese words they know). She will have trips to the hospital to take care of deformities in her feet. There will now be three kids in the house--not two (and one of them is a girl!). And of course it will be a huge transition for her to leave the orphanage and meet her new mom and dad, to fly in an airplane for the first time across the ocean to a country with strange customs and language. 

But for as long as our friends have known about the sweet little girl, halfway around the world, who would one day join their household, they have called her their daughter and sister. And she is. She may have been born in a different country to a different woman and man, but she is still a part of their family (even though they haven't met her yet).  It's a beautiful image of love and family.

It's also a beautiful image of God. Throughout the Bible God uses the language of adoption for how He loves us. He invites us into His family. He longs to call us His child. He desires to make us His heirs and give us our inheritence. He loves us deeply and perfectly.

And while I hope that little Gracie Yuan Yuan may one day know that love, I am grateful that for now she will know the love of an earthly family--especially in a wonderful househould like our dear friends have. Blessings to you, dear friends. Many, many blessings.


Spiritual Multitasking (or How to Be A Contemplative)

God has wired us to multitask. At least that's what I decided during our informal teaching time Sunday night at church. He has wired us to be able to two tasks at once (which I admittedly struggle with).

1. Our first task is to be aware of God's presence and voice. At all times. This presumes that we are following God. It presumes that God is ever present (not just omnipresent--in all places--but at all times as well) and that He speaks and His voice can be heard. It also presumes that we want to hear God's voice and know that He is with us. I believe that this is at the root of following Jesus, however.

2. Our second task is doing whatever job we have before us. This may be our paid vocation, doing household chores, visiting a sick friend, studying for a class or a number of other regular routines or work.

This is how we're meant to multitask. We're meant to be able to focus on God while doing whatever it is we do throughout our day. Jesus had many analogies for this like a branch being connected to its vine or sheep hearing their shepherd's voice. The Apostle Paul referred to it as "praying continuously." The ancient monk Brother Lawrence called it The Practice of the Presence of God. 

These thoughts came up on a discussion about living a contemplative life. It's one of the values of our church. Contemplative living isn't a very easy thing to take hold of, though. Our first thought is probably of ancient monastics living by themselves, speaking to no one and spending all day in prayer and fasting. That kind of life isn't obtainable (nor desirable) for most of us.

Contemplation is more than that, though. At it's basic meaning, to contemplate means to think about something thoroughly or to look at something thoughtfully. At it's foundation in the same root word as "temple," the Latin templum: ground set aside for worship. Contemplation is worship simply through awareness of God.

There is also an intentionallity about contemplation. It rarely just happens. This is often why I fail. I neglect being intentional about focusing on God. Yet in order to multitask in this way--to be contemplative throughout my day, no matter what I'm doing, I must be intentional. You can't be contemplative without fostering a intentional focusedness on God. It's something you must choose to do each day--each minute.

Fostering this intentionality doesn't require that you become a monastic recluse. God intends that we do it in our daily lives. That is where we need God most, and that is where He shows up.

One of my friends at church doesn't like the word contemplation--mainly because of all the high and lofty images that come with it. It seems that a contemplative life is unobtainable because of that. Instead, though, he offered up the phrase, "Immersed life." That works: being immersed in God's presence...in His love, in our place before Him. It's a good place to start each day (and continue on throughout every minute of it).