Blue…

blue

Tonight was the first ever Blue Christmas Service at St. Andrew’s. I’ve always struggled with the concept of a Blue Christmas Service – I always enjoy the sparkle and joy of the Season. So to take time to focus on the struggle with grief or loss didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. It seemed like something that would jar me out of my joyful celebration.

However as we sang, prayed and lit candles this evening, I found something precious. A space of silence and breathing in the midst of a hectic and stressful season. This year, I have struggled to find my footing in the celebration of Christmas. I have loved every moment of worship that I’ve had since returning from Israel, but in between moments of singing and praying and listening to the word, I have found myself cranky and out-of-sorts. I think this has to do with wanting time to process all that we experienced in the Holy Land, and not having the time to do it. It also has to do with all the things on the “to-do” list which normally would have been done by now.

I have felt harried and frustrated and lacking in rest. So though I am not struggling with any particular grief or loss, I am struggling nonetheless. And this service ministered to me. My hope and my prayer is that it also ministered to all who attended, all who came broken and weary and weighed-down.

My hope is that if you are feeling that way, you too may be ministered-to during this season. That you may find a space to breathe, to reflect, to heal. And that the One who was wounded for us all, the One by whose wounds we are healed, would bring you comfort.

He was despised and rejected—
a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
He was despised, and we did not care.
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles
were a punishment from God,
a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
the sins of us all.
Isaiah 53:4-6 NLT

Evidence…

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
Luke 2:1, 2 NLT

When I was a child I was asked to do a reding at the Christmas Eve service at the church where my father served. It seems to me, that every single year I ended up with the “Quirinius was the governor of Syria” bit. I remember tripping over that name on Christmas Eve over and over again.

I was self-conscious and reading in public was tough for me. It always seemed that my eyes went faster than my mouth and that was always a problem.

This Christmas everything is different. I’ve blogged about the fact that my routine is out of whack. And that continues to be true. But it is also true that I am seeing many things with new perspective, new eyes, because of my experience in the Holy Land at the beginning of Advent.

And this little passage of the narrative of Jesus’ birth is no different. It jumped out at me this evening as I browsed Scripture, trying to decide if I had the energy to write a blog today. It jumped out of me because of something I read about Quirinius, a number of years ago. I believe it was in Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ… The details are a little fuzzy to me now, but what I read went something like this: for years biblical scholars thought that the mention of Quirinius as governor of Syria was an error. There was a Quirinius, the scholars and historians said, but he ruled a generation before the birth of Christ. So this was thought of as a fallacy in the historical accuracy of the Bible. But then, as seems to happen so very often in that ancient part of the world, somebody found a coin during an excavation. The coin was imprinted with a date – the time of Jesus’ birth – and had the figurehead of…you guessed it, Quirinius, governor of Syria. And all the scholars and historians had to change their views, because this was proof that there was indeed a Quirinius governing in Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth (if I am not mistaken, it was the other Quirinius’ son).

Now, the reason that jumps out at me as I read the Scriptures this evening, is that a little over 2 weeks ago, I stood on the shores of the Mediterranean at Ceasarea Maratima while gazing at a stone engraved with another biblical name – Pontius Pilate – as we heard a very similar story about how all the scholars believed Pilate was just a literary construct, not a real person. Then some fishermen were making their dinner on the breezy shores of the Mediterranean one evening. The wind was a little too much and they needed shelter for their fire. So they found a flat rock, and they propped it up, blocking the wind. As the fire crackled and their dinner cooked, one of the fishermen noticed that their wind-break-rock bore some writing. In fact, it bore a name. A familiar name: “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” And all the scholars and historians had to change their views.

I think God must delight in those moments – when someone flips over a stone or picks up a coin and the word of God is proved accurate. For me, I will grin any time I read that “Quirinius was the Governor of Syria” and remember that there is a lot of evidence for my faith.

20131216-225510.jpg

Above: The Pilate Stone – evidence that Pilate was who the Bible says he was.

Joy…

dreamstime_xs_21920885(1)

Today is the Advent Sunday of Joy. This marks a turn in our Advent journey. This is when the celebration of this season becomes a true celebration. This is when we turn from quiet contemplation to elation…sometimes our joy may be noisy. But sometimes it might be soundless.

Today I experienced joy in many different forms – it was there in the greetings of congregants before worship, it was there in the singing of the choirs (both junior and senior), it was there in time spent with a friend. And it was there in a quiet moment, as my dog and I stepped out into a snow flurry for an evening walk.

Joy is a gift. And our deepest, truest joy comes from the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. A baby who’s beautiful life, ground-breaking teaching, and sacrificial death would reconcile God and humankind. Through him, we are saved – the basis of all our joy.

The angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!
Luke 2:10,11 NLT

Born to bleed…

Having just finished up a sermon, and being a little exhausted, I’m not going to write a lot for this evening’s blog entry.

But I’ve been noticing this Christmas how often Easter makes an appearance in the carols and songs of the season. I love it. You can’t have Christmas without Easter and you can’t have Easter without Christmas. Sometimes people want to just enjoy the sweet baby Jesus, without thinking what would happen 33 years later. Well, maybe it is because I had the experience of being at the birthplace of Christ, and then the deathplace of Christ a few days later this year…but I just can’t look/talk/think/sing about the baby without also being deeply aware of the cross. They go hand in hand for me.

And they should. The baby has to grow up, and do his work and lay down his life, or we’re all lost.

So on that note, I’ve been listening to this song a lot this season. I hope you’ll enjoy it, too:

Like a child…

20131213-211927.jpg

I had the chance to drive out to Oshawa this morning and witness my chosen-niece seeing Santa. Just yesterday I was saying how this Christmas is just a little off for me – all my routines are messed up. And it doesn’t sit well with me.

While driving out this morning, I put my “everything Christmas” playlist on shuffle and one of the songs that came up was Third Day’s “Like a Child” from their album Christmas Offerings. It got me wistfully thinking of how Christmas was always perfect when I was a kid. Now, I am smart enough to know that it wasn’t perfect, I’ve just forgotten the difficult/upsetting/boring/less-than-perfect moments. But there is something about the way kids approach Christmas: full-steam-ahead with enthusiasm and innocence.

Flash forward to Aly’s visit with Santa. She loved every moment of it. She got to wear her beautiful dress and her gold shoes. She got to have her picture taken. She got a candy cane (and one for Patchy, her build-a-bear dog who was dressed in a doll-size version of Aly’s dress). She got to decorate a cookie. She got her face painted. For my darling girl, it was a magical morning. And her enthusiasm, her innocence, her pure in-the-moment joy, were contagious.

Sometimes I think Jesus came as a baby to help us remember and value all that children have to offer. To help us remember a time before we understood the commercialism that surrounds us, or the family politics that make this season less than merry and bright.

I am so thankful for the lessons that Aly and her brothers, Cam and Nate, have to teach me. I am thankful that their child’s ways remind me of some of the things that God values. Things like vulnerability and innocence and purity…that God values enough to send his only Son not as a conquering King, but as a helpless baby. So that we might remember how important it is to approach life like a child.

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. “And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Matthew 18:2-6 NLT

20131213-211821.jpg

Out of whack…

20131212-232025.jpg

I am a creature of habit. I like to figure out a routine that works for me and then I like to stick to it pretty hard. Every weekday morning starts with a 5km walk with my dog and a friend. Every Friday I take the day off and drive to Oshawa to see friends. Every night I read for a while before going to sleep. Every Sunday I am found at St. A’s participating in worship. My life has a lot of routine to it, and I like it that way.

But every once in a while something throws my routine life a little out of whack. To say that my trip to the Holy Land threw my Advent/Christmas routine out of whack is a bit of an understatement. The decorating won’t progress past two-thirds-finished (I’ve just given up that battle all together). The Christmas shopping is usually finished by now so that I don’t have to fight my way through the mad crowds. Alas, this year I will be blessed if I can finish it all by this coming Sunday. And don’t even talk to me about where I am with worship prep. It’ll all get done and it’ll all be beautiful, but it is all slightly out of whack.

And that is reflected here in my tiny corner of cyberspace, as well. Normally, by now, I am half way through an Advent Calendar on my blog – blogging every day a short reflection on the Christmas story. Not this year. I haven’t blogged about Christmas…at least, not in the focused-Advent-Calendar-blog-entries way that has been my routine for the past few years.

So that’s going to change now. Each day between now and Christmas, I will post a blog about this season and the One who is the reason for it all.

Tonite I start simply with the reminder that in this world of routine-breaking-chaos, we take time each year to remember the child whose birth, life, death and resurrection brought light into our darkness and order into our chaos. And that is why we call him the Prince of Peace.

For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6 NLT

Home…

IMG_1715
Above: This was in the olive groves that surround the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem…I took this picture specifically because I wanted to post it on this day, the Advent Sunday of Peace.

The truth is that I arrived home 3 days ago. But today I feel like I am finally, truly home. I think it has something to do with having worshiped with the folks of St. Andrew’s Brampton this morning. Sitting in the sanctuary – bawling my eyes out every time one of the Christmas carols mentioned “Jerusalem” or “Bethlehem” – I felt the love and support of my community of faith. And what better thing to be welcomed home by?

I found myself thinking of that night in Bethlehem, when the Christ Child was born. He came into this world in a place that was not home – not for him, not for his parents. He came here having left his home – heaven. And he did that for us. To teach us that love means showing up, being present.

The children of our church presented worship this morning. Their pageant was simply the telling of the Christmas story, but it was done with heart. The worship of children has always been a very moving thing for me.

So on this Advent Sunday of Peace, I am thankful for the peace that comes from belonging with other people who believe in Jesus. I am thankful for the faith of our children. I am thankful for the witness of all who participated this morning. And most of all, I am thankful that love shows up in the form of a child born in Bethlehem who changed everything.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all.
2 Thessalonians 3:16 NLT

Last day…

20131204-221029.jpg

Wow. I am tired. I have broken 22,000 steps on my Fitbit today. It was our day off and despite wanting to take it easy walking-wise, I ended up going twice as far as I have any other day.

Today was spent shopping and exploring. And though it wasn’t on my agenda to visit any significant historical or theological sites, I nonetheless found myself at The Church of St. James with friends. We had the opportunity to take in the service there. It was in a different language with vastly different traditions than anything I have experienced. Even so – it was beautiful. There was deep sense of mystery and awe in the service. I didn’t understand anything that was happening…but I had the sense that God was present. And so did my friends.

20131204-221039.jpg

I am exhausted and my brain has truly shut off. So I will leave you with this brief entry and a brief scripture:

Without question, this is the great mystery of our faith : Christ was revealed in a human body and vindicated by the Spirit. He was seen by angels and announced to the nations. He was believed in throughout the world and taken to heaven in glory.
1 Timothy 3:16 NLT

20131204-221012.jpg

Shaped by song…

20131203-181738.jpg

20131203-181620.jpg

Today I went to the Western Wall (some of you will think of it as the wailing wall, but that isn’t what they call it now), walked the tunnels under the wall, went to the church where Peter denied Jesus, sang in the Church of St. Anne (one of only 3 buildings in Jerusalem that has never been destroyed), sang in the Upper Room, walked the Via Dolorosa and explored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (the place of the crucifixion and resurrection).

If I had to choose, I liked the singing parts best. The Via Dolorosa gets all the press, and I am glad we walked it, but it is a noisy, busy, – forgive me, but – smelly kind of a place. It is hard to fully enter into the experience of retracing the final steps of Christ with so much distraction around. But in the Church of St. Anne, we had a few minutes with only our group present. We sang Amazing Grace, the Doxology, Holy, Holy, Holy. And it was, in a word, beautiful.

singing in the Church of St. Anne

A little while later, we gathered in the Upper Room. And while we were there we sang the chorus, “He is Lord.” I had to stop singing because of the tears streaming down my face. How wonderful to stand in the place of the Last Supper, one of the places where Jesus appeared to the disciples, the place where the Holy Spirit came upon the believers at Pentecost, the very birthplace of the church and sing out our belief. And this was before Doug shared with us that he came to Christ at a youth meeting, and when he accepted Jesus, the members of the youth group surrounded him and sang that very song.

Every day here I have thought “well, we won’t be able to beat that!” about whatever experience we’ve just had. And then, the next day comes and somehow I find that we have taken it up a notch, yet again.

I have been blessed beyond my ability to express during this trip. And having all of you who are reading this blog or following my posts on Facebook, along for the ride is part of that blessing.

I think the only quote I can share with you tonight is from The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise in Luke:

…Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.
Luke 1:46-49 NLT

20131203-181633.jpg

Right here…

20131202-210057.jpg

Today we walked through the city of David (David’s palace), stood on the Temple steps, and visited Bethlehem. My brain feels like I have hit overload. I will be processing this whole experience for months.

But the thing that struck me today was immediacy. We were standing where David ruled, where Jesus taught and healed, where Mary gave birth to a tiny baby who would change the world. It all happened RIGHT HERE.

20131202-210140.jpg

Above: Doug is sitting where Jesus would have sat. He is reminding us of Jesus’ words, teaching us as Jesus taught those who gathered to hear him so many years ago.

It is a beautiful and powerful thing to be reminded that our faith is not something of storybooks or fairy tales. And though it happened long, long ago, it was not in a galaxy far, far away. Instead, it was here. In this warm, dry land. In this place that God chose to forever change the human race.

It is possible to get to, to stand upon, to interact with the very places where Jesus lived, taught, died and rose again. It is possible to touch the stones he touched and sit on the steps he sat on. That immediacy is important to remember, because sometimes we feel like God is far away. Sometimes we feel like it all happened so long ago, that who even remembers?

But (to borrow a phrase and a book title from one of my favorite writers, John Ortberg) – God is closer than you think. He cares about what you are going through, he longs to be in relationship with you, he longs for you to choose to make a difference in His name by living a life shaped by the hope, peace, joy and love that He has made available to us through Jesus.

As we stood beside the manger in Bethlehem, our guide encouraged us to sing Christmas carols. And it all became so very real once again. We are in advent. We are patiently awaiting the day on which we will celebrate the coming of the Christ child. And today, I stood with friends…with brothers and sisters in Christ…right beside the place where his mother laid him down. We lifted our voices because we know what I have just said – that God longs for us and loves us – and that is something worth singing about.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:38, 39 NLT

Singing beside the manger…