Christmas Eve Devotion

Have you watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” yet this season? How about “A Christmas Carol,” the Dickens classic? Year after year, these and other Christmas favorites are repeatedly enjoyed. What gives these stories such staying power?

I think it is the theme of transformation. We like to see transformation. We like to see the characters turned around. Redirected. We like a story of a someone selfish and crotchety becoming someone kind and generous. This kind of tale gives us hope and lifts our spirits. It reminds us of the reason for the season.

When we look around at the state of things, maybe we can see lots of areas in which we would like to see transformation in our world. How would you like to see those who deny the human influence on global warming transformed into avid environmentalists? I would like to see that! How would you like to see Congress working for the good of ALL people of the US and an end to the warring partisan tribal factions? I would like to see that kind of transformation, too. How would you like to see every person treated equally instead of privilege and favoritism based on money and race and religion and identity? Wow!

This is the season to be inspired by transformation. The religious stories of the season are stories of transformation. Elizabeth transformed by a birth in later life. Mary transformed by her special role. The shepherds recipients of special treatment by the angels instead of being ignored outcasts. And there is the whole concept of incarnation – divinity taking on flesh. This is a season for stories of unexpected twists and turns. So we feel an openness to change. To something new. To possibility. The start of a new year ahead also feeds into those expectations.

So with all of this hope and potential swirling around us (instead of snow, here in sunny Florida) we remember the words of Mohandas Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” We are invited to welcome change, conversion, and transformation into our own hearts and lives. And then to see this change ripple into wider society. This is how societies change – with change in one individual, then another, and another, and another. . . . The world-changing impact of Christianity over centuries and civilizations began with one small baby.

So this Christmas Eve, open yourself to Divine Love, the spirit of Christ, being born in you, transforming you, filling you. Add your story to the stories of transformation that illumine this holy season.

Prayer
Love, light, peace, be born in us today. Transform us, remake us, give us new life for the good of this beloved, beleaguered world! Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.23.17 Beyond Giving

Christmas is a season well known for charitable giving. Many charitable organizations receive generous financial donations at Christmas time. Food banks and meal programs are swamped with food and volunteers. Shelters are given heaps of socks and underwear. Toy collections for those made poor exceed expectations. Christmas giving goes well beyond those presents under the tree to sharing gifts with those who are less fortunate. This is a beautiful dimension of the holiday season.

In the Magnificat, the poetry talks about the hungry being filled with good things. That is a beautiful vision. Everyone having food to eat. This is something we would all love to see especially when you think about how much food gets thrown away and how many people experience food insecurity.

But the Magnificat doesn’t just talk about plenty for the poor. The writer extols the God that has selected Mary to be the mother of Jesus:

“You have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.” [Luke 51b-53]

This portrayal of God goes well beyond promoting charitable giving much of which comes from those who are wealthy and powerful. So what are we to think of these provocative verses?

I think the writer is not looking for punishment for specific individuals who are rich or in positions of power. I think the poetic imagery in the Magnificat is a way of talking about changing the system, the societal arrangements and the economic structures, that create poverty, that make people poor. The Magnificat is envisioning a new social and economic order that does not take advantage of people or make anyone poor or hungry or “less than.” This new reality can be seen in the selection of Mary, a poor, humble, small town girl, for a big important role in God’s plan for justice. And Mary’s son, Jesus, will devote his ministry to making God’s dream of a human community without poverty or oppression a reality.

The kind of reality portrayed in the Magnificat and in the teachings of Jesus, a reality which does not create victims but promotes mutuality and equality is good for everyone. In that kind of world, no one needs to be afraid. Those who were on the bottom don’t have to worry about being taken advantage of. And those who were toward the top don’t have to be afraid of being robbed or attacked for their wealth. It is a reality without fear, or guilt, or twisted justifications and manipulations. It is a reality based in shared experience and truth.

So, maybe we want to look forward to a Christmas season without charitable giving. Not because people are greedy or hard-hearted, but because there is no longer any need. As Divine Love is born in us, may we commit ourselves to creating social and economic arrangements that eliminate poverty and oppression.

Prayer
We are grateful for our many blessings and our material resources. We are grateful that we can share with others. May we be generous with our hearts and minds and creativity working to create a world that is free of poverty and need especially for those who are most vulnerable. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.22.17 JOY!

The word joy doesn’t seem to be used much except around Christmas and in church. Joy was once a common girl’s name. Maybe you know someone named Joy. In the stories leading up to the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Luke we hear of joy. Mary has been told that she is going to have a child. This child is going to be special. He will do great things for his people. That’s a big responsibility for Mary. She must know that it will complicate her life. And she is probably poor and struggling as it is. Yet she and her cousin, Elizabeth, are portrayed as being filled with joy.

Can you think of a time, recently, that you were filled with joy? When your heart was joyful? When you wanted to sing for joy? When you were overcome with joy? Maybe even shedding tears of joy?

Take some time to think this over and reflect on one or more recent experiences of joy. Is it hard to come up with a recent occurrence of joy in your life? That’s something to be aware of. Do memories of joyful moments come easily to mind? That is also something to ponder. Was joy once a common occurrence? Has that changed? Are you feeling more joy? Take some quiet moments to reflect on joy in your life.

If you can think of a recent experience of joy, try to remember what was happening. What were the circumstances? Were others involved? What was going on? This may give some illumination about finding more joy in your life in the days and weeks to come.

While many Christmas ads promise joy, shopping and presents may not be where we actually find joy. Joy may not be in a box under the Christmas tree or in a stocking hung by the chimney with care.

Being part of the life of God, following Jesus, cultivating the image of God within, seeing the sacred in others, these things are associated with a wellspring of joy in the Christian tradition. Or at least they point in the direction of joy. In the gospels Jesus is remembered for coming to bring joy. If we would like to feel more joy in our life, maybe our spiritual life needs more attention. Maybe it’s time to be more regular about church, prayer, and service.

This Christmas may we ready ourselves for JOY to “Be Born in Us Today.”

Prayer
The fullest expression of our deepest humanity is a life of much joy. In these busy, hectic days of holiday preparation may we find our way to making room for more joy in our lives. Amen.

Remember the LUCC Christmas offering for Gulfcoast Legal Services.  Your gifts may help bring joy to others!

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Advent Devotion 12.21.17 Born of the Spirit

The prophet Isaiah reminds people what they are to expect from one who is sent by God. They are to expect a spirit of wisdom and understanding. A spirit of counsel and strength. A spirit of knowledge and reverence for God. They are to expect one who takes delight in obeying God, and doesn’t judge by appearances, or make decisions by hearsay. One who will treat poor people with fairness and uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden. [Adapted from Isaiah 11:1-4a, Inclusive Language Bible, Priests for Equality]

We are celebrating Christmas because we believe that these traits were present in Jesus. In Jesus’ life and ministry we see these characteristics. We feel that Jesus fulfills this description. And he calls his followers to do the same. His followers are not just to glorify who he is. They are not simply to extol how virtuous, and righteous, and good Jesus is. They are not just to praise how Jesus fulfills God’s intentions.

Those who find themselves on the Christian path are to follow Jesus: To emulate his goodness and values and compassion. They are to embody the Divine Love that is seen in him. Jesus shows us what we, too, are made of.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus and all that means, we are also to prepare ourselves to birth the spirit of God in our lives. We are making ready for the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and strength, knowledge and reverence, to take root in us.

People today are prone to be weak. We often lack self discipline. We make explanations and excuses rather than applying inner strength to curb our baser impulses. People routinely spew venom not just on social media but face to face. We need the spirit of God to be born in us today.

As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we are to be preparing ourselves for the spirit of the Divine to come upon us so that we might take delight in God’s ways and not judge by appearances or make decisions by hearsay.

Think of it – “not judge by appearances.” How many people of color are being judged not by behavior but by appearances? How many people are being judged not by character but by clothing? How many are being judged not by conduct or compassion but by country of origin or accent or religious affiliation or gender identity?

And think of the significance of not making decisions by hearsay in this era of fake news and false testimony and intentional lying and deceit even from the most powerful officials of our land. We are being called to make decisions based on factual information, on actual experience, verifiable evidence not on hearsay. Not on fake news. Not on lies and distortions.

The human impact on global climate change is a fact. The racism in America is based on verifiable evidence. The sexism in the world can be documented with statistics as well as powerful stories. #metoo is about truth telling not hearsay. Be born in us today.

As we prepare for the birth of Jesus, we are preparing ourselves to treat poor people with fairness and uphold the rights of the land’s downtrodden.  We don’t see that spirit in the tax law that was passed by Congress this week because it appears to cater to the interests of the rich and send the poor away empty handed.  Centuries after Isaiah, the writer of the Magnificat will echo the same sentiments:  You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.  [Luke 1:53]

As we pray this season, “Be Born in Us Today” we need the words of Isaiah and the writer of the gospel of Luke to remind us just what that kind of birth looks like. It is a radical departure from much of what we see around us just as it was in the days of the prophet and the gospel writer.

Prayer
May we be open to the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit that does not judge by appearances or make decisions by hearsay. May we treat poor people with fairness and uphold the right’s of the downtrodden. So may the spirit of God “Be Born in Us Today.” Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.20.17 Ponder

In the most hectic season of the year, who gives a thought to pondering???

Ponder? When there are presents to buy? When there are decorations to be put up? When there are parties to go to? When there is wrapping to be done? When there are cookies to be baked? When there are errands to run? When there are so many things to do, who can think of pondering?

And as if that were not enough, the daily assaults in the news continue apace. More revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Is Congress really going to pass that hand-out-to-the-rich tax bill? Then there are the bombings and mass shootings that have become commonplace. Ponder? Who has time to ponder?

Well, in the stories around the birth of Jesus, we are told that Mary pondered. She pondered about the message of the Angel Gabriel in the story of the annunciation. In the story of the shepherds visiting the manger, we are told of Mary pondering these things in her heart. Mary pondered.

People who make strides in science are known for pondering. Darwin was a ponderer. Einstein was a great ponderer. Scientists who ponder make new connections, see things in new ways, come up with new insights to be tested and explored that inform our understanding of the material world.

People who come up with strategies for advancing civilization are often ponderers. They take time to observe things and think about things and analyze things. Then they come up with new ideas for advancing society.

Winter is a good time for pondering. There are the long hours of darkness. In many parts of the world, it is a season of dormancy. Plants and trees look dead. Fields are bare. Yet life is preparing to emerge again after the cyclical period of stillness.

This Advent season, at LUCC we have been focussing on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” This is a season to ponder how Divine Love is seeking to be born in each one of us this season. How are we being called to birth more love into the world? How can we help to create a more peaceful world? How are we needed to challenge the power arrangements of society that create poverty and suppress the human spirit? This takes some pondering. And Lakewood Church has been providing the opportunity for doing just that during Sunday morning worship in Advent. The services have been contemplative with time to rest in Love, to think, to stop thinking, to listen, to be. To ponder. For from pondering comes transformation of ourselves and of the world.

Prayer
We are grateful for the tradition of Mary who pondered. She is a reminder to us that we are all part of the great stream of Divine creativity which flows forth from contemplation into action. As we pray for the spirit of Christ to be born in us may we ponder our new birth. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.19.17 Reorientation

At the Florida Conference Annual Meeting in October, keynote speaker, the Rev. Molly Baskette, asked a question of us. “What is your church’s ‘why’?,” she asked, leaving us to answer the question, “What can church still offer that secular culture can’t?” [From FL Conference UCC “Conference Call.” By Rev. John Vertigan, Conference Minister]

What does the church have to offer? This time of year, it is pretty blatant. While the culture around us is focussed on what people will get for Christmas, presents under the tree, making sure that retail spending is high as an indicator of economic health, the church is focussed on the stories leading up to the birth of Jesus which are all about, “What can I give?“ not “What will I get?” And that is one of the main things that the way of Jesus has to offer the world that is unique and different from secular culture.

Our culture creates consumers of us all. What will we consume? What do we want? What material goods will we buy? What convenient services will make our lives easier? It’s all oriented around “What’s in it for me?” What can I get?

The church, when it is faithful, isn’t promoting what it has to give people. It is not promising an easier life, or more comfort, or more money, or a more beautiful, younger looking you. It’s not about “What can I get?” here.

The church is promising wholeness, a world that is welcoming and friendly to all people. It is focussed on the healing of the spirit and body; healing society and the very Creation itself. And how does this happen? Through GIVING. The church is here to help us see the needs of others and the world, and to ask ourselves how we are being called to respond to those needs. The church is here to help us and others find ways to contribute to the greater good.

In the final frenzy of Christmas shopping this week, with offers of free shipping and guaranteed Christmas delivery, keep in mind Mary. The story of the annunciation was read in church on Sunday. It is a story of active, initiative in response to the needs of the world. Mary gives up whatever her expectations of the future may have been. She gives up an easy, anonymous life. She gives up a “normal” life. For a life that is for the greater good AND that will involve the horrible, tortured death of her beloved child. That is what the church has to offer: Finding your truest life, in service to the greater good regardless of the sacrifice involved. Jesus learned this from Mary. We celebrate Christmas because Jesus was killed for undermining and threatening the power structure of the culture around him. He was not killed for promising to make people rich, or happy, or pretty.

Prayer
May we keep our eyes wide for how we are needed to contribute to the greater good. May Divine dreams of justice, community, and plenty for all fill these long winter nights. We will find our highest good as we create Peace on Earth. Amen.

Reminder: Don’t forget to drop a contribution into the giving can for Gulfcoast Legal Services which provides legal help to immigrants. Please bring the can with your offering to church on Christmas Eve.

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Advent Devotion 12.18.17 Long, dark nights. . .

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

John 1.5 reminds, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome.” In this part of the country Advent is experienced in Day Light Savings time. The sun rises later each day and is sooner to set. The winter solstice is here (even in Florida!) the beginning of longer days and the ending of shorter nights.

This season has felt darker than usual. The events that continue to unfold serve to make this writer doubt the possibility of a miracle this year. Who will feed the hungry? What will become of the poor? How can those who have so much feel the need to accumulate more? Where is the voice of reason that will make sense of this insanity?

I wonder if this is how Joseph felt. So many moving pieces! Way beyond one’s ability to to understand, to deconstruct, to remain faithful in the call you had been given. A deep trust in the promise given. Not a faith without doubt and an abundance of questions, but a faith that sets a life in a new and uncharted direction.

My prayer on this day is help me to be a light in the darkness. Today, give me the courage to do the one thing I can do. Allow me to not loose sight of how much my one small action can impact another. My challenge is not to understand all that is occurring, but to respond to what I am a witness to.

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Advent Devotion 12.17.17 The Unexpected

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
Isaiah 11.1

Fourth century preacher and teacher John Chrysostom wrote,
“What shall I say! And how shall I describe this birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant…”

The Advent season is a time of watching, waiting and preparing to bear witness to the coming of God’s presence. Year after year many remain surprised by the form it appears. Our salvation comes in a most unexpected package. It is small and fragile, weak and vulnerable, tender and soft.

The world applauds loud and aggressive entrances. This story serves to remind those willing to slow down, to sit down, to listen, that spectacles of power and grandiose announcements are more the nature of humans than YHWH.

There is something comforting about a God who operates like this. It reminds me to stop living my life anticipating the “what’s next.” Moving from my list of things that must be done, to collapsing from the energy it took to complete the tasks. I might indeed check all the boxes, but where was I truly present?

Henri J.M. Nouwen offered, “Our temptation is to be distracted and be made blind to the ‘shoot that shall sprout from the stump.'” He went on to say, “When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence-the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends- I will always remain tempted to despair.”

Let my prayer today be one that invites the small and the ordinary to garner my attention. May I seek to find the sacred in my daily encounters. May I be wise enough to recognize the Divine in the places no one else thought to look. AMEN.

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Advent Devotion 12.16.17 The Annunciation

This devotion is offered by the Rev. Victoria Long
Luke 1.26-35

The opening line from Denise Levertov’s poem “Consent” dares us to enter the story at the moment Mary was asked to say yes to a life changing invitation.

“This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.”

Advent, offers much to unwrap, as we re engage with the perineal story that leads to a birth. This Luke narrative, has frequently caused some to ponder the question, “but…what about Mary?” Placed in the context of the hashtag movement of “me too,” the quest for reconciliation becomes even more timely.

Each of us must make meaning for our own selves, as our sacred stories are seldom as simple as we may have hoped. There are layers upon layers of possible truths. There are consequences for our responses. Our yeses and our nos.

Theologian Cynthia L. RIgby suggests, “Gabriel, reminds Mary that to be incapable of conceiving in and of ourselves is not the end of the story, that ‘nothing [is] impossible with God’. The best discussions of Mary’s response recognize the pitfalls inherent in rendering Mary either a passive participant, who has no choice but to submit to God’s will, or an autonomous individual, who can choose differently than to bear God to the world….Mary’s obedience is neither optional nor forced. Mary acts freely when she offer’s herself as a servant of the Lord. To embrace her identity as the mother of God is the only choice that is true to her calling, because it is consistent with who she actually is.”

Each of us encounter those places that require a yes or no. Mathew 5.37 challenges us to let our yes be yes and our no be no. We then must live into the consequences of those responses. What is being born within your own life by the answers you give to the questions presented to you? Are your responses leading you to the places you want to be? Are you equipped for the adventure?

Consent
This was the minute no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.
She did not cry, “I cannot, I am not worthy,”
nor, “I have not the strength.”
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her.
Denise Levertov

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Advent Devotion 12.15.17 Magic!

Disney promises magic. Displays of Christmas lights promise magic. Ads try to convince us that a certain gift will deliver magic at Christmas. Many of us have a soft spot for the “magic.” That something special. That over the top feeling. That reaction that just could not have been scripted. That eruption of delight.

The Christmas story is filled with magic. Elizabeth getting pregnant in her later years. The child leaping in her womb. A young small town girl becoming the mother of one who will offer a path of salvation to humanity. Joseph choosing to submit himself to a greater purpose than protecting his reputation. Lowly shepherds confronted by angels in the night. A star leading learned astronomers to a remote, far off town and a child of another culture and religion who will be important to all of humankind. The Christmas story is filled with magic before you even get to the more recent Santa and flying reindeer and visits via the chimney.

But the magic of the Christmas story is not the message of Christmas. The magic points to the message. Divinity taking up residence in humanity. The incarnation of Divine Love. God enfleshed. In one baby, one person. So that we know the nature of every person. Sacred. Divine. With the capacity for universal love that is very personal, intimate, and specific. So as we make our way through this Advent season, let’s not settle for the magic but look deeper for the message and the meaning.

Prayer
Amidst glittering lights and nativity scenes and Santaland, may we look for the incarnation in Jesus, in ourselves, in each other, and, maybe most importantly, where it is least expected. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.14.17 Feel the Pain

When Jesus begins his ministry in the Gospel of Luke , we are told that he quotes the passage from Isaiah: “The Spirit of Our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of Our God’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19]

So from the beginning, Jesus lets it be known that he is committed to fulfilling God’s dreams. He is not concerned with image or gain. He is not trying to amass power or popularity. He is going to concern himself with the pain of the world.

This Advent season, we are thinking about how Divine Love is seeking to be born in us today. Part of discerning this calling is to reflect on the pain in the world around us. Who does your heart break for? What story in the news just riles you up? Where do you want to offer comfort? Is it the women responding to #metoo? Is it the people of Korea, north and south? Is it kids that are going through school and not learning to read or add or tell time or write a paragraph? Is it those who have sought to relieve their despair in ways that have resulted in addiction? Is it the neighbor who must decide between buying food and buying prescription medication? Is the pain which moves you the pain of Earth – the land, the waters, the animals, the air?

Try to pay attention to how you are moved by the pain you encounter. This will help you to know how God is seeking to birth Divine Love in you, love that is healing and restoring and joyful.

Prayer
May we pay attention to what moves us. May we slow down and be aware and feel. In this process of discernment and discovery, may we get a better glimpse of how we are to be Good News for the world. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.13.17 Restoration

Powerful leaders make many promises. Politicians make many promises. We are used to hearing how they want to please everybody all the time, which, of course, is impossible.

There are promises to improve the economy, and education, and healthcare, and public safety, and the environment, and care for seniors, and care for veterans, and care for children, etc. etc. etc.

In the scripture that we heard Sunday from Isaiah, promises are made. These promises are made to people whose homeland has been reduced to rubble by war. Ancient ruins will be restored. Sites long devastated will be rebuilt. Ruined cities which have been neglected for generations will be repaired. [Isaiah 62:4]

Who makes these promises? Not a politician. Not a king. Not a prophet. These promises are made by God. But who will do the work? Will God enlist kings and princes and priests? We are told that the dreams of God will come to fruition through the efforts of those who are made poor, and those who have had their hearts broken, and those who have been in prison, and those who have been in debt, and those who have been in mourning. These are the people whom God will use to create a new community, a new city, a new society, out of the rubble.

This Advent season is a time to be reminded that God includes everyone. There is no one so lowly, or so disadvantaged, or so stigmatized that they cannot be part of making God’s dreams for humanity come true. Think Mary from a small backwater town, Joseph, a carpenter, and the shepherds who had the status of an undocumented farm worker. And then, there is the image of God coming as a baby to save humankind.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey, there is a place for you with God and in the faith community.

Prayer
Society may tell us that what we are really good for is shopping and spending money and fueling the economy. May we listen for another voice. A voice calling us, insignificant as we may feel we are, to be part of brining the Divine visions for Creation to fruition. We have gifts to give that can’t be bought and sold. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.12.17 Rededicating the Temple

The Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt which was completed in 165 BCE. Since the Temple had been been repurposed to honor Zeus, it had to be cleansed. A new altar was constructed and new holy vessels were crafted. It was once again the center of Jewish cultic life.

Today Jews the world over will be lighting candles and will continue this tradition for seven nights remembering the stories of their faith tradition and the reclaiming of the Temple.

This year at LUCC we are reflecting on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” from the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” We are thinking about how Divine Love was not only born in Jesus but it is born in us. Each person is an incarnation of the Divine, created in God’s image.

This concept is expressed in I Corinthians 6:19: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” This Advent season we are thinking about how we are vessels for the Spirit of God; for Divine Love. Advent is a time for us to prepare ourselves for the Divine to be born in us once again. In a way, we are working on re-dedicating ourselves, as temples, to the purposes of God.

So as our Jewish friends celebrate Hanukkah and the rededication of the Temple, we are reminded of our spiritual journey to rededicate ourselves once more so that Love may live in us and bear fruit for the world.

Prayer
We are grateful for Holy Days that invite us to reflect on and deepen our faith commitment. These celebrations connect us to one another and to those who have gone before us. May the light of the candles of this season remind us of the light within us seeking to shine Love in the world. May the light of Christ be born anew in us. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.11.17 Trees of Integrity

Advent Devotion 9

Some time ago, I saw a friend from childhood. Our parents had been best friends. Our families spent lots of time together when we were children. When I saw my friend, as an adult, we were talking about our parents, who they were and what they did. We both agreed that what we and our siblings were doing paled in comparison. She referred to our parents as tall trees. “They were tall trees,” she said. We felt more like scrub shrubs.

Tall trees. This image comes up in the verses that were read from Isaiah in church on Sunday. “They will be known as trees of integrity, planted by Yahweh to display God’s glory.” Trees of integrity. What kind of image is this for people favored by God?

I think this is a very good image, especially considering the writer of the passage didn’t even know all that we know about trees today. But to call those who display God’s glory “trees of integrity” is actually quite fitting, even if it is likening a person to a plant. Think of all that trees do and provide. They provide shelter to people and animals. Their wood can be used to construct shelter and many other things. Trees provide homes to many creatures: bugs, beetles, bats, birds, apes, snakes, lizards, sloths, squirrels, and many other animals. What a welcoming, diverse environment trees provide!

Trees provide shade and comfort. They bear fruit, seeds, nuts, and berries which are a food source to many animals including humans. An apple, anyone? Trees provide broken branches which decompose and enrich the soil. Their roots hold the dirt in place and help to prevent erosion.

There are also things trees do that the people of the Isaiah’s day could not have known. Trees consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen enabling animals to live on earth. Trees affect weather patterns and temperature and help to reduce global warming. Trees communicate with each other passing on helpful information for their survival. Whoever penned the line “trees of integrity,” in Hebrew, could never have known these important properties of trees.

The writer of Isaiah did know that trees provide beauty to the world. Beauty perhaps only appreciated by the human species.

“They will be known as trees of integrity.” Who are “they”? Who are those who are associated with such lofty function and importance? Those who are made poor, those with broken hearts, those who are captive, those in debt, those who are mourning. People who are suffering, weak, and disadvantaged. These are the people who are referred to as trees of integrity. These are the people chosen by God to display God’s glory.

This Advent season, may we spiritually prepare ourselves to be numbered in their ranks and to take our place as “trees of integrity” planted to display Divine glory.

Prayer
Shelter, food, protection, community, beauty. All of these things are vital to flourishing life. May we offer these things to one another, to the human family, and to Creation. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.10.17 Human Rights Day

 

December 10 is International Human Rights Day declared by the United Nations in honor of the passage of the International Declaration of Human Rights by the UN on December 10, 1948. Eleanor Roosevelt was the chair of the committee that developed the Declaration.  It is long but well worth reading reminding us of what a sane, peaceful world looks like.  And it is heartening to think that this statement won widespread approval in 1948.  I’m not sure it would be passed by the United Nations today.  I’m not even sure the United States would vote for it.  This is the text of the Declaration:

Preamble
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 5.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 6.
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.

Article 7.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. All are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination.

Article 8.
Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 9.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10.
Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11.
(1) Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
(2) No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Article 12.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 13.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 14.
(1) Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
(2) This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 15.
(1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

Article 16.
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Article 17.
(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 20.
(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
(2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Article 21.
(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.
(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.
(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Article 22.
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 23.
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Article 24.
Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Article 26.
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Article 27.
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 28.
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

Article 29.
(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

Article 30.
Nothing in this Declaration may be interpreted as implying for any State, group or person any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.

To me this Declaration echoes with core teachings of Christianity like all people are created in the Divine image. ALL people. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemy.” It also echoes the scripture lesson from Isaiah that was read in church this morning:

“The Spirit of Exalted Yahweh is upon me, for Yahweh has anointed me: God has sent me to bring good news to those who are poor; to heal broken hearts; to proclaim release to those held captive and liberation to those in prison; to announce a year of favor from Yahweh. . .”

This Advent season we are reflecting on the theme “Be Born in Us Today.” For the Declaration of Human Rights to have power in the world, individuals must commit to its implementation. It must be born in us, we cannot expect others to support and implement these rights for all people. We must do it and we must insist that our government respect these rights.

When the Declaration was passed, Eleanor Roosevelt said as much: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home — so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. . . Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

If we want to see a world at peace, a world that respects the dignity and self-determination of every person, a world where everyone has access to needed food, shelter, education, and healthcare, if we want to see world where there is freedom of religion and of expression, we have to create that world starting in our homes and our communities.

Prayer
This is a season of preparing for a birth, the birth of Jesus. May his birth remind us of the sacredness of every child that is born. May his birth remind us of a world safe for all babies. May his birth remind us that all children deserve nurture, education, food, shelter, self expression, and play. A world healthy for children is a world healthy for adults, as well. May the birth of Jesus remind us of the awesome holiness of every birth including yours and mine. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.9.17 Waiting –

Advent is a season of hope, joy, and big promises. A world set right. Dignity and self-determination restored. Justice and peace. So, it is almost inevitable that Advent leading to Christmas will be a disappointment. From the beginning, we know that the world will not be at peace on Dec. 25, 2017. Economic injustice will not be rectified by Dec. 25, 2017. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape will not end on Dec. 25, 2017.

Maybe the Christmas trees, the lights, the presents, and the stockings help to ease our disappointment with merriment.

This week I joined about 50 other clergy from the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ for a day with the farm workers in Immokalee, FL. We heard from the leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and from the Fair Food Campaign. We also visited a grower and heard the story of his involvement with the Coalition.

Apparently, the Coalition approached this grower asking to have a conversation about the Fair Food agreement. The farm workers wanted to explain the issues that were important to them. The grower was not interested. And things stayed as they were. The farm workers asked again. No interest on the part of the grower. And again. No.

Twenty years after the first request, the grower came to the Coalition asking to hear about the issues that the farm workers were concerned about. And the grower eventually signed the Fair Food agreement and is a model grower working with the Coalition to get others on board.

Twenty years. The leaders of the Coalition waited twenty years. They told us that when the grower finally came, they were angry and frustrated that it had taken so long. They had to recognize their anger and hostility and put it aside so that they could work with the grower. And the results have been mutually beneficial.

Twenty years is a long time. But the promises of God for restoration and renewal may not come for a long time. People waited hundreds of years for the messiah. Some people today are still waiting for a messiah. Things like peace can take a long time to unfold. And we must not lose hope even though we may not live to see the fulfillment of the promises of God.

We also want to remember that when the promises of God do come true, especially if has taken a while, we may need to make the conscious effort to put our negative feelings about the delay on the shelf. Whatever may be holding us back from receiving the fulfillment of the Divine promises, whatever may be blocking our participation in the Divine justice and peace that is emerging, we must overcome it. And take part in birthing God’s intentions for humanity to live in peace and mutual respect.

Prayer
Sometimes things to take so much longer than we would like. We wonder why a dove doesn’t just swoop down and eradicate violence from the face of Earth. But God’s time may not be our time. We must learn to wait and maintain hope lest we miss the wonderful things that are happening to create a more just and peaceful world. We may get so caught up in our impatience that we miss what is happening and the dreams that are coming to fruition. May we stay attentive and alert to ourselves and what is going on around us. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.8.17 Comfort and Joy

Each Easter at Lakewood UCC the service opens with several hymns. One of them is always “Joy to the World!” Yes, it is typically sung at Christmas time, but it is fitting at Easter as well especially with all of the nature imagery. And Christian Educators tell us that singing the song at Christmas and Easter helps children and youth understand that both holy days are part of one story.

The Advent is a season to deeply appreciate and experience God’s comfort but with that comfort comes joy. The words joy and rejoice and joyful are used far more by the prophet Isaiah than the word comfort. The ultimate goal is joy! We can say this about Isaiah. We can say this about Jesus. We can say this about the Bible. And we can say this about God. The ultimate message is joy!

What is joy? Gratitude for being alive? Delight in the awe and wonder of creation? Appreciation of others and the loving relationships in our lives? All of that and more. Joy really is an attitude that comes from the inside. It is not dependent on outside circumstances or having certain material things. Joy is an inner orientation.

We often talk of taking comfort in something. This is a way to refer to something that gives us relief from our anxiety and distress.

But what about joy? I had a Christmas book as a child called “Take Joy!” by Tasha Tudor. I always found the title intriguing. We seldom say, “Take joy.” Really, how much do we use the word “joy”? Not much, I fear.

But I like the message of “take joy.” It seems to say – joy is there. Lots of it. Waiting for you to take it. Hoping you will have some.

Maybe if we were taking more joy, in life, in one another, in nature, in relationships, in the arts, we wouldn’t need so much comfort. Maybe our great need for comfort comes in part from a deficit of joy.

This is a season to remember that God desires humanity to live in joy, to be joyful, and to rejoice!

Prayer:
Joy to the world! Heaven and nature are singing! Earth is praising the wonders of Divine love. Let us join the chorus. Take joy. And repeat the sounding joy! Repeat the sounding joy! Repeat, repeat the sounding joy! Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.7.17 Comfort and Hope

Comfort is a word that we associate with this season. The prophet Isaiah offers God’s comfort to people who are in a situation of devastation and perhaps demise.

But God’s comfort is not just to soothe bruised spirits or to pacify sorrow. God’s comfort implies hope for the future: A future that shines with justice and compassion and right relationship. A future of peace and plenty. It’s a future that is hard to imagine when your cities and towns lie in ruins and you have no power of self determination. But God’s comfort comes with hope and promise. It will not always be this way.

There are certainly many who feel, at least some of the time, that we are living in a time of devastation and perhaps demise. I speak with people every day who are in shock over the way our society seems to be going backwards – more racism, more sexism, more income inequality, more intolerance, more violence, less education, less accurate information, less rationality, less faith in the government, less trust. To some it feels like a time warp, like we are going back in time. While much of this regression seems to have its locus in the president, it should be noted that the president is in part reflecting sentiments that originate in certain pockets of the US population. But most people did not expect those pockets to gain such power. We are being shown what was already there. And it is ugly.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we are opening ourselves to Divine comfort and to Divine hope. We need our bruised spirits soothed, but much of that solace lies in the promise of a different future. In our Biblical heritage, we are promised a future characterized by justice, generosity, and peace. The birth of Jesus is the foundation of that future. And we must continue to build on that foundation – in hope. Maybe we put just one stone in place, but it is one more in building a beautiful world of peace for all; a world where every form of life is respected and nature is revered as a sacred gift to be enjoyed not exploited.

God’s comfort is an investment in God’s future. It comes with hope attached.

Prayer:
As we open ourselves to God’s comfort this season, comfort we so desperately need, may we recognize that Divine comfort comes with hope. God comforts us so that we can be part of God’s hopes and dreams for the future of Creation. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.6.17 Comfort – Gentle and Strong

When someone takes your hand or puts an arm around you it can be an expression of comfort. Perhaps a call or a card is an expression of comfort. We tend to think of comfort as the soothing of pain and hurt with gentle compassion. And that is something that is very much needed in these times when people feel buffeted and torn apart and scrabbling to hang on.

A woman stopped by the church recently telling of how she had had a car accident. After the accident she missed work. She lost one of her two jobs. She got behind in her rent. Now she is worried about getting evicted. And still trying to do the one job. And trying to recover her health. Where is the net for her? Where is the life line? Where is the helping hand? When this woman came to the church hoping we would help her with her rent, which we did, she mentioned how good it felt to have someone who would listen to her describe her situation and show understanding and compassion. She was very grateful for that. There’s clearly much soothing of pain with gentle compassion needed in today’s world.

But there is more to comfort than a kind word or a sympathetic gesture. The word comfort comes from the word “com” which means with or together. and “fort” which means strength mighty, steadfast, brave, spirited. It’s where we get the word fort as in a military post.

So the concept of comfort has teeth to it. There is an implication of solidarity and resistance. There is the sense that we are stronger together. Together we can be strong.

When God offers comfort to the people, as in Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] this implies continued relationship, loyalty, and steadfast love. True comfort is more than just a fleeting gesture, it is a long term commitment which is why I gave the woman who cameo the church for help with her rent some information about the church and invited her to come to church on Sunday. As a church, we truly want to be a community of comfort.

Prayer:
Comfort is so important especially for making it through difficult times. We are grateful for those who offer comfort when it is needed. May we receive the comfort we need expecting to be made stronger and expecting our relationships and connections to strengthen. May we always be able to count on the church for comfort in the fullest sense. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.5.17 Condos, College, and Comfort

An acquaintance was telling me about someone in his condo complex that has three greyhound dogs. Apparently there are rules in the complex about pets, size and number, and the three greyhounds exceed both criteria. But the person is allowed to have the dogs because there is some kind of documentation certifying that they are comfort dogs providing a mental health service to the owner. The person who told me about this volunteers at the Humane Society and was not complaining about the situation only describing it.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess my biases up front. We also have three dogs which provide a goodly share of comfort to our household though they are not designated “comfort” dogs. They are also a lot of work and a lot of fun.

But I have been thinking about those three greyhounds. How is it that a person needs so much comfort from dogs? Is our society so anxiety ridden? While the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” [40:1] are reassuring, we also need to be thinking about why the comfort is needed. Why are people so distressed? The opioid crisis is another manifestation of the distress and anxiety of people today. What are the roots of that dis-ease?

I have heard that anxiety is on the rise among young people but I was still shocked to hear from my son who is in college that students are allowed to have pets in the dorm – dogs and cats and other animals – if the animals are certified as comfort animals. Again, what kind of community and culture is fostering so much stress and worry and anxiety?

Back in the dark ages, the 1980’s, when I was in college, sure it was stressful. And from what I have seen of college requirements today, we worked a lot harder academically. And how did we deal with the stress? We relied on each other, our classmates, for support and solidarity.

The story about the three greyhounds makes me wonder about our level of stress but it also makes me think about where we are getting comfort. Does this person in the condo have three dogs for comfort because she is not getting enough comfort from the people in her life? Does she not know that she can turn to the church for comfort?

When we think about the life and ministry of Jesus, we see that he was engaged in creating communities of justice. A healthy society is just and there is fair treatment of people, and equal access to opportunity, and a safe environment where life’s needs are met. This was the vision Jesus was sharing with his followers. He also showed compassion to all who were excluded or suffering or distressed. So he showed us how to create less stressful communities and how to be present to one another with compassion and comfort.

As we think about the theme “Be Born in Us Today” may Jesus be our guide as we consider the level of stress in our society and how we provide comfort.

Prayer:
May we be grateful for pets and animals that give us comfort and joy. May we remember that we are animals, too, not only with the capacity to be “comfort” animals, but also with the capacity to reduce distress in the world. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.4.17 Seeking Comfort

A look at the ads assaulting us each day indicates that we are a people seeking comfort. We look for shoes that are comfortable. We want a car that offers the comfort of a smooth ride. We like comfortable clothes. We are lured to the comfort of a sleep perfect mattress promising a good night’s rest.

But whatever the mattress and the comfort promised, we may find that we don’t sleep well when we are worried about our finances, about our loved one who has an addiction, about war with North Korea, about the impending environmental collapse. Maybe what we find is that we are tossing and turning on that comfortable mattress.

Comfort is about more than just making the body feel good. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” declares the prophet Isaiah. This comfort is about the spirit as well as the body. It is a comprehensive comfort.

In this season as we explore the theme “Be born in us today” we’re talking about the love and light of God possessing our lives so that we have true comfort in our trust in God. This is so much more than the mere bodily comforts promised by advertisements. It is all well and good to feel bodily comfort but with God so much more is promised. Comfort for the spirit is offered as well. The comprehensive comfort of God, comfort for all aspects of our lives and our being, is a true gift offered to us in this present moment.

May we take the time to wonder about our need for comfort and turn our hearts to the Love that offers comfort. It is that Love that is seeking to be born in us.

Prayer:
May we seek the comprehensive comfort of Divine Love this Advent season. As that Love is born in us, may we offer comfort to others. Amen.

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Advent Devotion 12.3.17

This is the first day of Advent, the four weeks before Dec. 25, when the church begins preparations for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

In times past, Advent was called the Little Lent because is was shorter than the 40 days of Lent but it was still considered a time of penitence. Advent remains a season of quiet watching and waiting. It is a time for pondering, like Mary. And a time of wonder, like the shepherds in the fields who were watching their flocks in the birth stories in the Gospel of Luke.

The theme for Advent this year at Lakewood United Church of Christ is “Be Born in Us Today”; the line from the beloved carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” In Jesus, we see the fullest expression of Divine Love in a human life. We are shown the potential that is in every single human being. We all have the capacity to live from a heart center of universal love. We so need that spirit to be born in us today so that we can overcome the many forces that are dividing people and causing conflict in our families, in our communities, in our country, and in the world.

One of the most radical, as well as unique, teachings associated with Jesus is the command to “love your enemies.” In other religious traditions, there are important teachings about love of neighbor and do no harm, but the command to “love your enemies” implies actively seeking the well-being of the enemy. It implies not just don’t kill your enemy, but be kind to your enemy. Do good to your enemy. Help your enemy.

As we focus on the theme “Be Born in Us Today” we are thinking about how we can embody the spirit of Christ in the world. One place to start is with love of enemy. Usually this season, we are busy doing nice things for our families, friends, co-workers, and those we love and enjoy. To extend this in the spirit of Christ, I invite us to think about someone we consider an enemy and then to show love to that person in some way. Do good for that person. Help that person. Offer a gesture of kindness to that person. Maybe you could do something for an “enemy” once each week of Advent. Then see how it effects your feelings. See how it impacts the other person. See how it changes you. Feel free to share your experiences in the comment section below this post.

Think you don’t have any “enemies”? Think harder. Is there a neighbor that annoys you? Is there someone in your family that you do your best to avoid? Is there someone in public life that ignites your rage? Is there a co-worker that sets your bells off every time you see them coming?

In thinking about this, I immediately identified someone who has behaved as an enemy of our church. That is where I am going to put my efforts at loving an enemy this Advent season.

Prayer:
We pray for Divine Love to be born in us this season. May we nurture this new life by loving our enemies. Amen.

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The Bible, The Church and #metoo

I’m wondering about #metoo and women of the Bible. It seems there are many women in the Bible who experience sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Women in the Bible are grabbed, groped, raped, and murdered. It pretty much starts in Genesis and goes on from there.

This heritage makes it all the more imperative that the church be vocal and visible in confronting sexual misconduct in the church, in the home, and in society today. The church needs to be safe space for all. It needs to be a place where women and men can share their stories and tell their truth, and know they will be treated with respect and compassion.

The church has come to this issue with too little too late. It is past time for the church to get out in front leading the change in our culture so that sexual misconduct is no longer tolerated, overlooked, or worse yet, encouraged.

This involves the church telling the truth about the Biblical stories we have inherited that have directly or indirectly contributed to the acceptance of sexual misconduct in Western culture.

There may be those who would defend the Bible. Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. The stories don’t imply that God endorses sexual misconduct today. Ok. Then can’t we say the same about the Biblical perspective on other issues like the equality of women and homosexuality? Those stories refer to ancient times. The culture and values were different. Of course!

The Bible teaches humanity to honor the image of God in every single person. This is what we are shown in Jesus. And this is what everyone should see in the church.

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Lincoln Speaks Today

In honor of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1809

“Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a Nation we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

In a letter to Kentucky friend, Joshua F. Speed, 1855

“In times like the present men should utter nothing for which they could not willingly be responsible through time and eternity.”

To Congress, December 1, 1862

These two quotes come from The Living Words of Abraham Lincoln: Selected Writings of a Great President, 1967, with a foreward by Carl Sandburg.

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Advent Devotion Christmas Eve 2016

untitled The Light Still Shines. This has been our theme for this Advent season and for these daily devotions. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of the light of the world. We celebrate Jesus as a manifestation of Divine light.

We have explored how that light helps us to see the truth of our circumstances. It illuminates how things really are even when we don’t like what we see. We have thought about how the light invites us to change direction, turn, repent and live in a way more consistent with the intentions of God and the teachings of Jesus. We have examined the transformation needed for our well-being and the well-being of the world and the toll taken by avoiding change. We have considered the call to self giving and the need to keep at bay the lure of greed, selfishness, and arrogance. We have thought about how Jesus is a messenger telling us all that we need to know for the living of our days. We have sought out the way of Jesus, a way of compassion and joy.

Receiving the Light of the World requires soul searching and brutal honesty. It is an invitation to transformation when for the most part we don’t like change. But the result of committing to the way of Jesus, to following his light, is life. It is full, abundant life for ourselves. For others. And for Earth. It is peace and security that the world cannot take away.

Santa won’t have that in his sack. He won’t leave a package with that wrapped under the tree. He won’t stuff that in your stocking even if you are on the “nice” list.

Prayer: May we open ourselves to receiving the gifts that Jesus seeks to give us. Amen.

Don’t forget to bring your donation can for The Micah Center to the Christmas Eve Service. Music begins at 6:30 p.m. and the service starts at 7:00.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Seven 12.23.16

untitledThe Light still shines. And in our dark days, we need it. Looking at the newspaper has become scary. I find I am only looking at about half of my emails from organizations and movements. I don’t have NPR on much. The brevity of Twitter seems bearable. I find that I just can’t take all the darkness in the news, especially our national news these days.

Personally, I have a great life and I am not complaining about family, job, home, etc. Well, not much anyway. But despite the candles, cards, and carols, I can’t say that I feel much in the “Christmas spirit.”

In their book, The First Christmas, John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have this to say about light:

Like much of the Bible’s language, the imagery of light is both personal and political. The contrasts between darkness and light are correlated with other central contrasts: bondage and liberation, exile and return, injustice and justice, violence and peace, falsehood and truth, death and life. These contrasts all have a personal meaning as well as a political meaning. It is important to see both. . . Too see only the personal meaning is to miss half of their meaning.

Yes, it is important for us to see the Light of Christ in personal and political terms. And, perhaps, this year, more than most, we need the political, though it may be just what we think we want to avoid. Maybe by avoiding the political implications of the teachings of Jesus, we are only letting in part of the light, we are restricting the full shining of the light, we are not opening ourselves fully to the Light of the World.

So many people in this country and around the world are celebrating Christmas – the birth of Jesus, the Light of the World. His light brings liberation, community, justice, peace, truth, and life. If everyone knew that, I wonder how many would still celebrate Christmas? It’s really a radical, subversive, counter-culture revolution. Truly honoring Christmas and the coming of the Light of the World is about setting the world on fire. Maybe if I open myself more to the political imagery of light, I will start to feel more of the Christmas spirit.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, reflect on how you see the light of Christ in your personal life and in society at large. Where is the light needed now?

There is still time to put more donation money into your can for the Micah Center. Won’t it be great to hear all that change clanking at the Christmas Eve service? Our giving to The Micah Center is both personal and political – we are helping individual students and we are working to remedy the injustice of the education system.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Five 12.21.16

untitled Today is the shortest day of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. There will be the fewest hours of daylight and the most hours of darkness on this day for half the planet.

Though we won’t see much sunshine, the sun is still there in space, blazing. When the stars are obscured by clouds, snow, fog, or rain, they are still out there in the great beyond shining. When we don’t see many stars due to urban light pollution there are still millions upon millions of stars beaming out in the cosmos. When buildings, trees, or other vegetation shield the light from the sun or other stars, they are still there burning brightly whether we see them clearly or not.

This helps to remind us that there may be things that obscure the Light of the Divine, but it is still shining. It is shining in us. It is shining in others. It is shining in the world. It is blazing through the universe. Whether we see it or not.

If we don’t feel like we are seeing the Light, or if the Light seems dim, we need to examine what is obscuring the Light. And then we want to remove those impediments to our experiencing the full, bright, shine of the Divine for we need that Light to help us make our way. The Light gives us direction for navigating the complexities of our time. The Light is a source of much-needed hope. The Light dispels the all-too-prevalent fear around us. And the Light empowers us to shine in our family, community, and society illuminating the world!

So, take the opportunity this Winter Solstice to reflect on what, if anything, is obscuring the Light in you and around you.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

School is out. Students and teachers are getting a break. Hopefully they will return to school refreshed. Your donations to The Micah Center will help the students succeed in the new semester.

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Four 12.20.16

untitledAlexander Von Humboldt was one of the most amazing thinkers of the 19th century. He combined a keen scientific sensibility with a deep poetic sensibility. He intimately, exhaustively studied nature, but he was also moved by nature and in awe of the world around him.

On one expedition, he writes about the influence of a lone palm tree. It is a wind block. The tree with its fruit and leaves attracts birds. Sand builds up around the base of the tree. The soil on the side of the tree away from the wind retains moisture long after the rainy season. Insects and worms, scarce elsewhere, accumulate in the moist soil. One tree has a big impact upon its surroundings. [See Humboldt’s Cosmos, Gerard Helferich, p. 185]

This assessment of the impact of a palm tree, not likely to even be noticed, helps us to see the influence we may have when we shine the light of Divine universal love. When we shine the light, we may be having an influence in many ways. We may be subtly or not so subtly affecting the circumstances around us. We may be creating networks of people and projects. We may be offering protection. We may be helping others. We may be offering encouragement that is needed. There are so many ways we may be influencing things around us when we shine the light – improving the world around us and making things better for others. And we may have no awareness of the effect we are having. We may never know.

This Advent season is also a time to think about how others have been a light for us. Each one of us has received inspiration, encouragement, and support from others who are shining the light for us.

As we approach Christmas and the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we reflect on the ways his light changes the world. We also trust that when we shine the light, we, too, are changing the world. The light still shines!

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

You may want to note in your journal something you have done which has changed the world because you HAVE changed the world!

The Micah Center is shining the light of support for students. Don’t forget to put some money in your can today.

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Advent Devotion Twenty Three 12.19.16

untitledIn the Christmas story in Luke, the shepherds abruptly head to Bethlehem to see this new born baby. They leave the sheep. They drop everything. They walk off the job. They clock out.

I am thinking about this sudden response. In what circumstances do we walk off the job? Drop everything? What is so important that we simply stop what we are doing and address ourselves to a new, unexpected situation?

Maybe this happens when the school calls and a child is sick and needs to be picked up. Maybe it happens when we are called from a hospital and informed that a loved one was in an accident and we are needed. Maybe we get up and leave work for a crisis or tragedy. It seems that it is even difficult these days to leave work to attend a memorial service.

All the things I think of that we would drop everything for are “bad.” An accident. A sickness. A sudden death. Some kind of catastrophe.

I am wondering when we would leave work, abruptly, suddenly, for something “good.” The shepherds in the story are told of something wonderful happening and they respond right away. They make the trek to the town of Bethlehem to see this thing which has been made known to them. When might we do something like that? What is so wonderfully compelling that we would drop everything and go? I can’t think of much. And I don’t think it happens very often.

Is it because we place too high an importance on work? We need our jobs. We need to make money. We can’t “afford” to leave abruptly and expect to come back. Is it that money, work, and a job are given too much significance? Is work running our lives instead of we running our work? Is work a tool for making a contribution and feeling worthwhile and providing for our needs? Or has work become a tyrant, and we more like indentured servants?

Again, in thinking about what we would walk off work for, is it also possible that we are not tuned in to being surprised by wonder? Is our capacity for being stunned by something wonderful diminishing? Are we so busy and so scheduled that we will only notice something remarkable on cue? Are we losing our openness to being knocked down in our tracks by something amazing?

Would “shepherds” today, say factory workers or field hands, walk off the job, risk the boss’s ire and being fired, in response to an angel chorus? Would you? Are we being offered good news that we are ignoring or not tuned in to see?

May we see the light shining this Christmas. May we hear the angel’s song. May we be caught utterly unawares.

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

Here’s hoping that The Micah Center will be stunned by the generosity of our giving this Christmas season!

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Advent Devotion Twenty-Two 12.18.16

untitled The last time I went to my doctor, a new doctor, I mentioned something about church. She asked me about it. I told her I was the pastor. Then she asked me, “So, are you a Jesus follower?” Well, typically, if someone asks about my religion, I would say that I am a Christian. In today’s social climate, that could be taken many ways. So, it may actually be a response that creates confusion rather than clarity. Maybe that is why the doctor asked if I was a Jesus follower. My first thought was, I just told you I am a pastor. I have already answered your question, haven’t I? Evidently not. But as a pastor, what could I say? No. I am not a follower of Jesus. There was only one answer I could give to this question. The doctor seemed very excited about this. She followed up to confirm my response. She was beaming. In the course of the appointment, I had also mentioned that I go to a doctor of Eastern medicine for acupuncture and Qi Dong. At the end of the appointment, she said, “Don’t worry about anything. With me, your Chinese medicine doctor, and Jesus, we will take care of you.” There you have it!

Are you a Jesus follower? In this time of varying expressions of Christianity, expressions which are very much at odds, maybe a better way to describe our religious identity is to say, “I am a follower of Jesus” than to say, “I am a Christian.” What does it mean to be a Christian? Some Christians are decrying homosexuality and abortion and defending corporate America and promoting getting rich, while other Christians are working for gay rights, respecting the rights of women, decrying corporate greed, and promoting material simplicity. You’re Christian? What does that mean? Which team are you on? The media has taken the default definition of Christianity to be the conservative/fundamentalist version and that hasn’t helped matters.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” sends a completely different message than “I’m a Christian.” And perhaps the message is more accurate. Our expression of Christianity is more about following Jesus, behavior and action, than it is about theological propositions and doctrine. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies certain behavior and attitudes. People think of Jesus as loving, compassionate, and forgiving. He is concerned with “the least of these.” He is dedicated to serving, especially those most in need. To say you are a follower of Jesus implies that you are trying to make the world a better place for everyone and that you are willing to be helpful and compassionate.

To say, “I am a follower of Jesus” means that we are committed to shining the Light of universal love, justice, peace, and healing. Are you a Jesus follower? What is your response?

Prayer: May we welcome the Light of the Divine and let it show us the way. Amen.

In your journal, maybe you want to cite an instance in which you felt you being a “Jesus follower.”

Show your support and compassion for the students of The Micah Center with your donation.

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