Advent: The Power of Love

Love songs fill the air this time of year. “All I want for Christmas is you,” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” remind us of heartfelt yearning for people and places that touch our lives. Billie Holiday’s bluesy “I’ve got your love to keep me warm”   rejoices that “no matter how much it may snow, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.”

That is the power of love. It can warm our hearts and calm our anxiety. Love can make us feel safe and cherished. Love is transformational – it can encourage us to do things that we might not otherwise dare to try.

 We celebrate love at Christmas – God’s love for us as well as the love we share with others. Yet Christmas is more complicated than a Hallmark movie; “happily ever after” can feel very elusive at times. Harsh realities remind us that many are struggling during “the most wonderful time of the year.”

What if your loved one is sick? What if promises of lifelong love ended in betrayal or loss? What if your beloved is no longer living? December 14th marked the 7th anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting that left 20 children and 6 educators dead. It made me think of people across the globe and close to home whose lives have been changed forever by violence. How do they approach a celebration of love while feeling devastated by loss?

            On the fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22nd, our church will celebrate a “Quiet Christmas.” This evening worship service is especially for those who desire Christmas’ peace and light but may not be feeling merry or bright. Whether someone is missing a loved one, wrestling with unemployment or financial concerns, addicted, estranged from family, or simply feeling out of step with endless loops of relentless Christmas cheer, this reflective service offers a time to simply “be.” In the quiet warmth of our sanctuary people can cry or offer prayers as they listen to God’s words of hope and healing.

            That is also the power of love. Love accepts us right where we are. Love comes into our pain and reminds us that we are not alone. Love walks the journey with us. Christmas celebrates the love of God who came into darkness and despair to offer hope and new life.

            This Christmas, if you are blessed with the company of those you love, cherish that.  Pause. Give thanks. Rejoice in the love that fills your heart.

If you are struggling or sad, know that you are not alone. Love is eternal. Love doesn’t die. The power of love promises always to be with us.

Love can give us the strength to carry on, one day at a time.

Advent: Signs and Wonders

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3 (NRSV)

A little doubt can creep into Advent just about now. A little bit of wondering – as we celebrate the Prince of Peace, where exactly is the peace?

Here we are, halfway through our journey to Bethlehem, and we are busy proclaiming promises of hope, peace, and joy. But there is abundant evidence to the contrary. Unless we are not paying attention, we can’t help but notice there is a distinct lack of these gifts all around us. And it could cause us to wonder – do we have the story right?

 The nagging doubts and poignant questions of an imprisoned John touch my heart. I imagine the scene – here is John, who has devoted his life to the Messiah, first by waiting for him and then by preparing the way for him. John joyfully shouted to anyone who would listen, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Matthew 3:3). John was privileged to stand in the River Jordan with Jesus and overwhelmed by the honor of baptizing him. John witnessed the heavens opening and the dove descending. John heard the voice of God proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

            But now the party is over. Jesus went on to his ministry and John finds himself in prison. A first-century jail would be a bleak place in any circumstance, but when a tyrant is the jailor and murder is on his mind, it was particularly grim.

            Is it any wonder that John’s last recorded words are formed as a question? Was I right? Did I back the right horse? Did I spend my time, my energy, and all my abilities on the truth?

Here is John’s final, urgent request – Tell me now, before it is too late. Are you – really – “the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

            John needs to know if his time and efforts have been in vain. It is a question that we might ask ourselves as we see endless signs of corruption, violence, discrimination, and loss during a season that celebrates comfort and joy. It is a question that might nag at churches with dwindling congregations and diminishing influence. As we light candles and speak of hope, does doubt ever seep in?

            And yet. Jesus reassures John – and us – with his powerful reply; “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).

            Yes, God is present. Not always in the way we expect. Not always on the timeline we anticipate. Not always with neat and tidy results. But life-giving, hope-producing, heartwarming change is going on right now. If we look, we will see it.

            Maybe we, like John, need someone to point it out for us. And maybe then we can rejoice and say, “Look! God is in our midst!” May that truth give us the courage to carry on.

Prayer

Faithful God, I believe. Help my unbelief. And help me be a messenger of your hope.  Amen.

(This reflection was first published in “Starting with Scripture” by the CT Conference of the United Church of Christ)

Advent: Sharing Joy

On Thursday, December 12th, our little town will celebrate a “Quiet Night in Woodstock.” Everyone is invited to light candles or luminaries and place them at the end of driveways and on stone walls. As we drive on our very dark backroads, it is heartening to see these small beacons of light glowing on the roadside.

The practice originated as a memorial to Judy Nilan, a social worker in our town’s middle school who was abducted and killed 14 years ago while jogging one afternoon after school. The luminaries commemorated that final route that she ran; the lights honored her spirit of compassion and giving.

The tradition has evolved and grown over the years. The Judy Nilan Foundation invites people to “share the peace of a quiet night during a busy time. Each year, the Quiet Night luminaries continue to spread across more of the town, inspiring many to take a break from the busy-ness of our lives.” This lovely ritual honors the spirit of someone who was so good at sharing joy and whose memory now encourages all of us to take some moments to reflect on what is important in our lives.

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is the Sunday of Joy. Judy Nilan was someone who offered great joy to students and adults through her understanding, caring, and attentive listening. Both the luminaries on Quiet Night and the three candles on the Advent wreath invite us to think about those who have brought joy into our lives.

Our lives are often so busy that we rush by special moments and barely acknowledge cherished friends or family. This week, take some moments and consider – who makes you laugh? Who makes you smile when you think of them? Who understands you when no one else does? What glimpse of beauty warms your heart? Take time to remember a moment when joy broke into your life. Give yourself the gift of re-living that occasion. Then give thanks for it.

Joy can be a rare commodity in a world that is often harsh and unfeeling. Joy is something to be cherished. Joy is something to share. These tiny points of light encourage us to notice glimmers of joy in our lives – and then to pass it on.

Advent: Praying for Peace

December 8th will be the second Sunday in Advent, the Sunday of Peace. As we light two candles on our Advent wreath, we will give thanks for God’s gifts of Hope and Peace.

It would be understandable if someone in the congregation raised a hand to ask the obvious question, “What peace are we celebrating? Where do you see peace in our world today?”

Certainly not in New Orleans, where 10 people were shot this week.

Not in Hong Kong where rioters demand free speech and increased self-determination.

Not in too many homes where incidences of domestic violence are on the rise.

Addiction, racism, prejudice, misogyny, and bullying are all forms of violence which are prevalent in our society and across the globe. 

It is enough to make one hesitate about lighting a candle of Peace.

As I pondered these troubling truths, I came across this beautiful prayer:

God of life,

Every act of violence in our world, between myself and another destroys a part of your creation.

Stir in my heart a renewed sense of reverence for all life.

Give me the vision to recognize your spirit in every human being, however they behave towards me.

Make possible the impossible by cultivating in me the fertile seed of healing love.

May I play my part in breaking the cycle of violence by realizing that peace begins with me.

The painful honesty of this prayer touched me. Then I discovered that this prayer had been written in the 7th century. It was oddly reassuring to me to be reminded that people of faith have prayed for peace across the centuries and through great tribulation. They have offered themselves up, as Saint Francis did, as instruments of God’s peace and asked to be used as messengers of God’s vision for our world.  

 This prayer was written by Saint Ethelburga who, I learned, was the founder and abbess of a double monastery (a monastery that housed both men and women) in England.  The abbey existed for 900 years until it was destroyed (ironically) by the violence of King Henry VIII who oversaw the disillusion of all the monasteries and abbeys in England, Wales, and Ireland.

Yet despite the efforts of a powerful king, this eloquent prayer has survived. On the second Sunday of Advent we will join our prayers with hers as we celebrate the Sunday of Peace. The Season of Advent does not celebrate accomplishments but rather voices God’s intention for God’s people.

God desires that we live in peace.

God desires that we treat one another with kindness and respect.

God desires justice and equality for all of God’s people.

So on Sunday we will light our candle of peace and together with Saint Ethelburga remember that peace begins with each one of us.

Advent: A New Beginning

Whenever I hear people talk about Christmas, I hear the word “stress.” Even enthusiastic holiday-celebraters admit to a certain amount of dread this time of year. And with good reason – our society depicts Christmas as a set goal with pre-determined outcomes. There seem to be a lot of “shoulds” connected with Christmas. There “should” be a perfectly decorated tree with beautifully wrapped gifts. There “should” be delicious food for happy guests (who all get along) around a creatively decorated table. Carefully decorated cookies “should” be baked with happy, well-rested, non-whiny children. And everything “should” be perfectly prepared by this unmovable deadline.  Is it any wonder that Christmas can feel like an overwhelming burden?

 The season of Advent, which begins on December 1st, is very different. While Christmas can feel like a marathon march to an exhausted finish line, Advent is the gift of a journey with an unknown destination. Christmas is about completion; Advent is discover and wondering. Christmas might feel proscribed; Advent is surprise and discovery.

Advent has a sense of mystery about it as we follow, search, wonder, and venture out in faith. It is an opportunity to trust as God leads us into an unknown future. The possibilities are as unlimited as our Creator.

During Advent we remember those who said “yes” to invitations in the past.  The shepherds hear Good News of great joy and go on a journey of discovery to “go and see” what God has done. The wise men respond to the flickering light of a star and place their faith in God out of the familiar and into the unknown. Mary begins her life-changing journey with an unshakeable faith. Joseph trusts that these incomprehensible events will reveal God’s love and purpose.

Into each journey is interwoven the theme of “do not be afraid.”

This Advent, do not be afraid…

 although you venture into the unknown.

although you feel very alone.

although the end result is not clear.

The season of Advent reminds us that God is “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.” What new thing do you imagine or dream of? Where might God be inviting you to go? What unknown is placed before you and where is God in that? What do you need to leave behind in order to discover this new thing that God is doing?

 Advent is about mystery and possibility and wonder. A candle glows to provide just enough light to take the next step. The promise of Advent is filled with possibility and new life.

Where will your Advent journey take you?

I wish you the joy and blessings of Advent.

Advent: A New Beginning

Whenever I hear people talk about Christmas, I hear the word “stress.” Even enthusiastic holiday-celebraters admit to a certain amount of dread this time of year. And with good reason – our society depicts Christmas as a set goal with pre-determined outcomes. There seem to be a lot of “shoulds” connected with Christmas. There “should” be a perfectly decorated tree with beautifully wrapped gifts. There “should” be delicious food for happy guests (who all get along) around a creatively decorated table. Carefully decorated cookies “should” be baked with happy, well-rested, non-whiny children. And everything “should” be perfectly prepared by this unmovable deadline.  Is it any wonder that Christmas can feel like an overwhelming burden?

 The season of Advent, which begins on December 1st, is very different. While Christmas can feel like a marathon march to an exhausted finish line, Advent is the gift of a journey with an unknown destination. Christmas is about completion; Advent is discover and wondering. Christmas might feel proscribed; Advent is surprise and discovery.

Advent has a sense of mystery about it as we follow, search, wonder, and venture out in faith. It is an opportunity to trust as God leads us into an unknown future. The possibilities are as unlimited as our Creator.

During Advent we remember those who said “yes” to invitations in the past.  The shepherds hear Good News of great joy and go on a journey of discovery to “go and see” what God has done. The wise men respond to the flickering light of a star and place their faith in God out of the familiar and into the unknown. Mary begins her life-changing journey with an unshakeable faith. Joseph trusts that these incomprehensible events will reveal God’s love and purpose.

Into each journey is interwoven the theme of “do not be afraid.”

This Advent, do not be afraid…

 although you venture into the unknown.

although you feel very alone.

although the end result is not clear.

The season of Advent reminds us that God is “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.” What new thing do you imagine or dream of? Where might God be inviting you to go? What unknown is placed before you and where is God in that? What do you need to leave behind in order to discover this new thing that God is doing?

 Advent is about mystery and possibility and wonder. A candle glows to provide just enough light to take the next step. The promise of Advent is filled with possibility and new life.

Where will your Advent journey take you?

I wish you the joy and blessings of Advent.

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)

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.