What do you need?

                Our church celebrates Christmas Eve twice – once at 5:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m.  Some ministers resist having two services but I enjoy both because they offer two very different, but entirely accurate versions of Christmas. The early service is crowded, noisy, and exuberant. The sanctuary walls are almost vibrating with energy as over-excited and over-sugared children try to hold it together so they can stay off the “naughty” list. This service represents “joy” to me.

             The late service is entirely different. Quiet, candle-lit, and hushed, our sanctuary glows with Christmas peace. Beautiful music soothes harried seekers who yearn to hear the Good News of a God who wants to be found. This service whispers “hope” to me.

 Although it was way past my bedtime, I shared the following reflection on Christmas Eve before we celebrated communion.

I hope you get everything you want for Christmas. And even more – I hope you get something that you need. That really is the question for Christmas, isn’t it – what do you need? It’s a good question to ask because if we know we need something, we will be ready to receive it.

We might even go looking for it.

Think about that very first Christmas. Who received something?

The shepherds did.  They heard the invitation – they heard angels singing, they heard the announcement of this miraculous birth. And they said to each other – I want that. I need that.  In beautiful Bible language, it sounds like this: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But what they were saying was, “This is something I need. Here is something I lack. So I will go, I will seek, I will look until I find it. They knew what they needed so they could receive what God was offering.

It was the same for the wise men. They saw the star in the sky. It must have called to them, spoken to their spirit.  It must have awakened a need in them because they followed it across miles and miles. They journeyed a long way to find that young child. Because they knew that they needed what he had to offer.

I’m willing to bet that other people heard the angels’ song.  It wasn’t just the shepherds. And I’m sure that other people saw that star in the sky. But those people didn’t go looking. They aren’t part of the story.

Maybe they stayed home that night because they weren’t able to say that they had an empty spot in their hearts that could only be filled by a baby lying in a manger.

It’s a pretty vulnerable thing to say. To say – I am lacking something. I need something more.

Who knows what the shepherds were looking for?  Maybe it was

  • Love
  • Forgiveness
  • Courage
  • Strength
  • Reassurane

They needed something – and they needed it enough that they were willing to leave everything familiar behind. They wanted and needed something more. And they dared to believe that it was being offered to them.

That is the Good News of Christmas. This gift is being offered to you.

And we can either convince ourselves that we are “just fine” and we don’t need anyone or anything. Or we can take a look at ourselves and realize that we need what God is offering.

There is a saying that you can’t really celebrate Christmas unless you know that you are poor. We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about what we need, deep inside of us. It’s about being able to say – I need God’s gifts. Sometimes we think we don’t need help. Or we think that we are beyond help. Beyond forgiveness. Beyond love. Beyond repair

We convince ourselves that we are unforgivable or unlovable. Or it’s just too late.

Christmas tells us that isn’t true. Christmas tells us that God wants to give, is waiting to give, is eager to give. Christmas tells us about God who seeks us out in order to be able to give us what we need. Christmas tells us about a God who puts stars in the sky so we will be able to find God. And who sends messengers so we will hear the Good News

Christmas is about the original gift-giver.

Christmas is about God who loves us. The one who knows what we need, even before we say. The one who is waiting for us to say – yes, please. I want this gift. I want the love, the forgiveness, the new life, the hope you are offering.

My reflection was inspired by this quote by Oscar Romero

 “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel, god-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador)

Creator of the Stars of Night

Advent getting you down?

Can’t listen to another Christmas song?

Too much to do and not enough time?

Do you need some inspiration for the final stretch before Christmas?

Look up.

Or, if it’s too cold for star-gazing, click here.  NASA has compiled a beauty Advent calendar of photographs taken by the Hubble telescope. Each day a breath-taking new photo of a distant galaxy or star formation is revealed. These photos offer a glimpse of worlds far beyond the one we know.

            Our Advent worship services start with the song “Creator of the Stars of Night” which begins,

Creator of the stars of night,
your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, great friend to each and all,
we beg you, hear us when we call.

The haunting tune invites us to consider God’s eternal creativity and far-reaching love and power. A miracle of Christmas is that the creator of all we see – and beyond – chooses to come to mere Earth-bound mortals like us.

As healer from the heavens forth
you came in earth’s despairing hour,
appearing in a mother’s womb,
all dispossessed of wealth and power.

Viewing the magnificent drama of far-flung galaxies may offer some perspective on our lives. These photos may not minimize our problems, but they offer a reminder of the enormity of the God who loves us.

You grieved for human sin and woe,
the anguish of our wayward race —
and death itself for us you braved
to give us life by loving grace.

We can gaze at these creations of light and color and be amazed that this creative God reaches out to each one of us with comfort, strength and hope.

O Christ, who suffered all our pain,
receive your people who adore
your holy name and, in your joy,
bind us in friendship evermore.

The gift of Light is given so we may share it with others. As we approach Christmas may we look for that light that shines in the darkness and remember that even the darkest moments cannot overcome it (John 1).  

Make us bright bearers of your light
In word and deed, and for your sake,
that creatures all might live in peace
and mercy all the world remake.

Look at the night sky.

Look at the pictures.

Soak in the wonder, the splendor of it all.

And then go out into the world and share some of that Light.

(Lyrics adapted by the Rev. Mary Luti)

Never complain about birthdays

 I turned 60 last week.  I was surprised by my reluctance to celebrate this milestone. Usually I anticipate birthdays with a glee not quite becoming of someone over the age of 10.  I have always found great joy in the day of my birth, a result no doubt of childhood memories of the world’s best birthday parties. They were not lavish but there my mother and I chose a theme (Winnie the Pooh or Hawaiian Islands or hippie fest – it was the 60’s, after all) and there were games, friends, cake and ice cream. It was a real celebration.

But this year I felt more hesitant.That feeling diminished somewhat when I visited the nursing home the day before my birthday.  After carefully winding my way through wheelchairs and walkers to address the group gathered for worship,I announced my final day in my 50’s.  A collective sigh rippled through the group as they wistfully reminisced, “Sixty.I remember 60.  So marvelous to be so young.”It was a good to hear their perspective.

Those very senior citizens are right, of course. Despite our society’s love affair with youth and all things new, I realize that getting older is a gift not everyone receives. After more than three decades of ministry, I have too memories of too many tragic funerals.Grieving families miss their cherished loved ones – babies, teenagers, young adults – who died too young. Complaints about gray hair and aching joints,those telltale signs of aging, fall on deaf ears. These families have an empty place at the table and in their hearts.  

So I rejected the temptation to whine (or lie) about my age. I know it’s a privilege to be alive, to be here,to love and be loved. I spent my day having lunch with my parents which seemed very fitting since they were there with me and for me since the very beginning.I was delightfully surprised to be joined by one of my brothers and my sister-in-law.  We celebrated with balloons; there was cake and ice cream, laughter and memories.

The evening offered a meal with my husband and daughter, followed by a movie at home. My sons called to wish me well.  It was a quiet day of celebration filled with family and love.

 May it remind me to give thanks for each new day. And may I be inspired to make the most of each one.

Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

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On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Do-it-yourself Advent

Long before Thanksgiving Day, it was Christmas in all the stores. My husband shopped in vain for harvest-colored candles and autumn napkins for our Thanksgiving celebration. That unfortunate holiday of gratitude had been relegated to a meager shelf in the corner of the store. In every aisle, as far as the eye could see, the displays proudly proclaimed CHRISTMAS.

But wait. It isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent, a season that is all about waiting. Advent is about transition and change. It is about waiting for what will be, but is not yet. Advent is a very human, unsettled season when things have not yet fallen into place. You have probably experienced Advent without ever naming it. If you have

  • Anxiously searched for a job
  • Moved
  • Cared for a sick loved one
  • Prayed for someone in recovery
  • Or even (like Mary) been pregnant

then you know about Advent. Advent invites us to remember God’s promise to be with us exactly when God is needed most.

Like Thanksgiving, Advent is also not being sold in any store. Fortunately, Advent is easily celebrated in the comfort of our own homes. Think of it as a gift to yourself in this busy season; Advent can offer an antidote to the frenetic pace of endless Christmas. We can pause, light a candle, and reflect on God’s hope and presence.

I would like to encourage you to rest your weary spirit this Advent season by creating your own Advent ritual. You don’t even need a traditional “wreath.” Any five candles will do. Size, shape, and color don’t matter. Electric candles are fine. Arrange them any way you like – in a wreath, a square, vertically – it’s up to you.

I went to our local Goodwill store to find ways to create my Advent display. Everything pictured here cost $10.

Advent begins on December 2nd. On that first Sunday of Advent, light one candle and reflect on how even the smallest light can entirely change the reality of darkness. During the week, find opportunities to light that candle again. Whether you celebrate Advent as you eat your breakfast cereal or just before you go to bed doesn’t matter. What is important is intentionally making time to pause and remember that God promises to be “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.”

During the first week of Advent, you are invited to

LIGHT a candle. Consider how you can be a messenger of hope.

READ Scripture: Isaiah 9: 2-7, Luke 1: 5-25, Matthew 1: 18-26.  Don’t have a Bible?  You can read any Scripture here.

PRAY for those who need hope today.

LISTEN  to a favorite Advent or Christmas song (and try to sit down while you do this; don’t multi-task. Cherish a few moments and fill your spirit with beauty).

I wish you the hope and joy of Advent.

Who is at the table?

Not many people can say that their Thanksgiving table actually resembled Norman Rockwell’s iconic depiction of the all-American holiday, but I have to admit, the Thanksgiving table from my childhood was pretty similar to the one in his painting. The people who gathered around the table were all white, heterosexual (as far as we knew),  and part of families formed with a mom and a dad, with mother cooking and father presiding over the carving of the bird. Gender roles were clearly defined and not (openly) questioned.

Thanksgiving 3

Just one generation later and our family has evolved. We look a bit different now. As we anticipate gathering with our children, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, we can look forward to racial diversity, hair dyed in startling hues, tattoos galore, and conversations that touch on topics like gender identity, sexual expression and fluidity, and the roles of men and women.

It is not Rockwell’s America any more and perhaps it never was. Many folks reminisce wistfully about “days gone by” while conveniently forgetting that many people in Rockwell’s era were not welcome at the table. Or at many schools, clubs, or businesses. That festive depiction of Thanksgiving only looks “ideal” if you happen to fit into the narrow roles of acceptance.

Thanksgiving 1

These updated versions of Rockwell’s painting, featuring a gay couple and a multi-ethnic gathering,  makes me wonder – who is at our tables?  Who is in our churches, our organizations, and our schools? Do we only gather with people who look like us and think like us?  And if we do, what are we missing? Can we accept the joy and challenge of widening our welcome?

This year, whether your table is filled with relatives or whether you create a family of your own choosing and design, or whether you celebrate a “Friendsgiving,” I hope you pause to give thanks for the blessings those special people offer to you. Let us also remember those who are not with us this year and give thanks for them, as well.

Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving.

I can’t watch anymore

I can’t watch any more. I dread turning on the news because I never know if there will be more pictures of flashing lights, tear-stained faces, people huddled with their arms around each other, more anguished parents and more heart-broken children.

I can’t listen any more as yet another mayor states (correctly) that this town is a nice town, a peaceable town, maybe the safest town in America.  And the mayor can’t imagine – how could anyone –  that something like this could happen here.

I can’t listen again as earnest reporters ask breathless and pointless questions. What was going through your mind? Can you describe how you were feeling? What was it like?

I can’t hear again how this gun or that piece of equipment was legally bought but illegally used. Or how this legally purchased weapon was illegally modified to increase its killing power.

I can’t listen to another devastated parent tell the world about their beloved child and just how loved, precious, and treasured that child is. I don’t even want to hear about the heroics of the first responders who bravely, incredibly, run toward gunfire instead of to safety. I can’t look at the pain etched on faces of police officers as they describe their colleague as a “cop’s cop.”

I don’t want to see another homemade memorial with flowers and candles and teddy bears, marking lives interrupted. And I can’t even listen to “Amazing Grace” (a hymn I used to love with its profoundly meaningful history) that has been taken over as the official mourning cry of a nation who doesn’t know how else to respond.  No matter how well sung, the song grates on my nerves as we mourn our dead but seem paralyzed as to other responses or solutions.

It happens again and again and again.

I am so tired.  I can’t watch. i can’t listen.

Because I know exactly how it will look.  I know precisely what people will say.

And I am so tired of it all.

The Rev. Eric Anderson wrote a song that expresses my thoughts beautifully. He writes, “I wrote this song after Las Vegas, and fifty-nine candles blazed across the front of our church. I recorded it after Parkland. I could have sung it again LAST WEEK. I don’t want to light another candle.”

I will think and I will pray.

I will work for gun control.

But I won’t watch those images any more.