Showing posts from December, 2018

By The Rivers of Babylon

In 587 BCE, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city of Jerusalem, torn down it's walls and destroyed Solomon's Temple.  He then took thousands of Jews back to Babylon to live in captivity for what would eventually be an entire generation. 

Psalm 137 imagines a realistic moment during that long treck to Babylon as the Hebrew captives neared the city where they would be paraded and then forced to settle and assimilate.   The Babylonian captors demand a song "of Zion" from the captives. 

The Psalm begins like this: 
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Interestingly, after a generation of living in Babylon, most of these Hebrew captives did assimilate to Babylonian culture.  And when the opportunity came for them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the cit…

What Do You See?

In Matthew chapter 11, we read a short passage where the imprisoned and soon-to-be-executed John the Baptist sends some of his followers to Jesus with a question.  The passage reads like this:  
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” I've always been intrigued by John's question because it's so incredibly real.  There had been a time when John was sure that Jesus was the Messiah.  But at this moment, as he's languishing in prison, John begins to wonder.  

Then Jesus sends back this message: 
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”Jesus' response is fascinating.  He doesn't make a singl…

Why Make A Big Deal Out of Advent?

Advent is a time for relinquishing some of the control in order to receive the impossible from God.  - Walter Brueggeman

I have this memory of a Christmas pageant I was in when I was like six years old.  I was a shepherd, and I had a line, I think.  
I would like to say that I was the shepherd who said, "Let us go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us." All our pageants used the King James Version of the Bible.  
Anyway, I remember standing there thinking, "Why are we making such a big deal out of Jesus being born.  Didn't we do this last year?"  
The more you think about it, the less crazy that question sounds, doesn't it?  I mean why do we make such a big deal out of Advent and then Christmas anyway?  What's at the heart of it all?  
We know that the Jesus' birth wasn't something that the first Christians really celebrated at all.  
Those early Christians were more into the Resurrection, a…

The Discomfiting Disruption of Advent

Be ready for action, and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet...blessed is the servant whom his master will find at work when he arrives. - Luke 12:35-48

Father Alfred Delp was a Jesuit priest who was falsely accused in a plot to overthrow Hitler, which landed him in prison in Nazi Germany.  He would be executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of World War II in February of 1945.

During his last season of Advent, he wrote about how he had begun to think differently about Advent as he paced back and forth in his three-foot cell.  He also began to see the turmoil of the world around him in a new light.

He decried the unbridled pride of his age which he believed was defined by a "false pathos" and "false security" in the belief in humankind's power.  It was an age marked by what he referred to as "spiritual insanity."

Delp and many others eventually resisted the nationalistic fervor of th…

Waiting With A Sense of Promise

Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life. - Simone Weil

I'm not keen on waiting--especially when I'm waiting to buy something in a store in the weeks just before Christmas.  It's the worst kind of torture for someone who struggles with impatience.   

And invariably, the store in question will have twelve cash registers, but only three of them will be staffed.  You know what I'm talking about, don't you?  (I'm looking at you Wal-Mart) . 

My question is simply this:  "Why create all of those cash registers when you build a store if they are destined to remain largely unused?"  

Is it just to mess with us?  To give us the illusion of what could be if they actually staffed up the place?  Maybe it's some sort of elaborate scheme to get us to buy more.  If you buy more stuff, we'll be able to afford my cashiers--come on, help us out.  

I got to thinking about waiting and Advent this week and I re-read some brilliant work t…

Jesus Blessed History's Losers

Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth, wholly human and wholly divine, to show us what it means to be made in God's image. - Madeline L'Engle

If we're being honest, there's something unsettling about Advent--about the idea that God would come crashing into our reality as one of us. 

And what's even more unsettling is how God accomplished this.  

There was no Grecian dramatic and violent birth story here--the eternal Word of God did not spring fully armored from God's forehead.  Nor was the Christ-child born into a royal family, surrounded by guards, protected and highly honored.      

Instead, God chose to enter into history as a tiny baby born to refugees--born without earthly protection, status or favor.  And while we have romanticized this story and sanitized it for easy consumption, the truth of Advent is unsettling and amazing news. 

The eternal Word of God identified with the least of these.  The Christ came to all of us, no matter who we are.  The Savior cam…

Tell That Good News Y'all!

And do this, understanding the present time.  The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber because our salvation is nearer now than we first believed.  The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.  - Romans 3:11-12

What do you do when you have some good news to tell? 

Do you stuff it way down into your gut and leave it there?  Do you resist the urge to tell people your good news no matter who they might be, nor how excited it might make them? 

If you are like me, the first thing you do when you have some good news---the kind of news that is firing you up inside and burning a hole through you to get out---is to find that person you know who will celebrate with you the hardest and you tell them. 

And not only do you tell them, you tell them dramatically... you draw the story out a bit, and create some suspense.  You punch the final revelation of your good news with an exclamation point, highlighted with some over-the-top gestures and maybe a bit of jumping up and down…

Emmanuel: God With Us - Week Two: Level Ground

Today is the Second Sunday of the season of Advent and it's also the second installment of the sermon series Emmanuel: God With Us. 

The idea behind this series is pretty simple.  We remember well what we value well.  And right about now what we need to remember well is something that is so life-giving, so full hope...  and this is that something: 

Because of Jesus we know that God is with us.  

Today we are going to be exploring this one very important idea--God is with us to make a way for everyone. 

But first---let me go off on a bit of a tangent for a moment.  

I once read about a trend that is starting to gain some traction in our culture--it's not a huge, widespread movement by any means, but it's still out there, still happening.

It's called sologamy or same-self marriage.

Nadine Schweigert, a thirty-six-year-old-woman from Fargo, North Dakota, who was interviewed by Anderson Cooper after marrying herself in front of some forty of her closest friends. “I, Nadine,” she …

Getting Rid of Negative Self-Talk

Our lives are always usable by God. We need not always be effective, but only transparent and vulnerable. - Richard Rohr

I was feeling sorry for myself the other day about something or another, and I started talking poorly to myself about myself. 

I don't mean that I was actually talking to myself out loud  (although there are times for that, too), but I was "saying things" about me in my head--things that were untrue and hurtful. 

And in those moments when I'm feeling sorry for myself, it can feel like more than just a whisper or a casual comment, it can feel like there's a Greek chorus in my noggin reeling off litanies of evidence to remind me of how truly inept I am at life. 

I hope I don't offend anyone with what I am about to say next, but there's no better way to put it.  I had a therapist tell me once that the Greek chorus in my head was called an I.B.S.C. which is short for "Itty-Bitty-S****y-Committee." 

Some of you have been waiting your w…

Blessings Instead of Cursings

Several years ago, a controversy erupted that was reported on ad nauseum by various and sundry cable news outlets. The controversy surrounded a decision by Target stores to eschew using the word "Christmas" in that year's marketing campaign in favor of more generic words like "Holiday" or "Season."

A plethora of Christian groups became incensed at this action--asserting that it was just another sign of the "war on Christmas."  

They also made the erroneous claim that Target was prohibiting its employees from even saying the words "Merry Christmas," and en masse called for a "Christian" boycott of Target stores.

I actually had friends on Facebook declaring that "true Christians" would shop at Wal-Mart instead, where (it was reported) the greeters and cashiers wouldn't get into trouble if they said the word "Christmas."

Honestly, I remember going to Target that year to shop for Christmas presents (I'…


One of my favorite Advent devotionals this year isn't actually a devotional, it's the newest album by the band Mumford and Sons entitled Delta.  

I am not exaggerating when I say this:  Delta has my vote (not that it matters) for "Album of the Year."  Go and get this album.  Download it.  Buy it on CD from stores that still sell them.  Or better yet, go down to an actual record store and buy it on vinyl.

The opening track has been speaking to me today.  It's entitled "42" for reasons I can't seem to discover on the interwebs.  No matter.  The lyrics are pure Advent:

But what if I need you in my darkest hour?
And what if it turns out there is no other?
We had it all
If this is our time now
We wanna see a sign, oh
We would see a sign
So give us a sign
I need some guiding light

The first time I heard this song, I felt myself getting choked up and teary-eyed.  It was one of those strange moments when you feel like you could have a seriously hard cry if you let yo…

We Are All Partial Images Coming Into Focus

This first week of Advent is traditionally a week spent reflecting on Hope.  More specifically, it's a week spent reflecting on how Hope has come into the world through the arrival of the Christ. 

But even during this season of expectation and hope, it can prove to be difficult to keep your chin up.
It's easy to become jaded when you spend any length of time poring over the latest news.  It feels like each day is filled with new levels of drama and with even more anxiety-inducing stories.

This morning, I got to thinking about how in spite of all the things I say that I believe about the arrival of the Messiah, I still struggle at times to believe that things are getting any better.  In response to these troubling thoughts, I penned this short prayer/poem:

God, it's Advent once again.  
We have prayed for and eagerly awaited change and transformation. 
But it seems like nothing has happened.  
It feels like the same-old/same-old. 
Earthquakes. Fires. Floods. 
War. Anger. Politicians…

Unto Us

Yesterday was an incredible first day of Advent. 

At church, we celebrated 15 new confirmands who all professed their faith and officially joined our family of faith.  These awesome eighth and ninth graders gave me so much hope for the future of the church.  

And I should also say that I got the opportunity to baptize one of the young women at Barton Springs near downtown Austin on Saturday morning with a whole crew of her friends, family, church staff and elders in attendance.  

When we celebrated her on Sunday we showed the video, and it was beyond moving.  

We also welcomed some additional new members at both of our worship services, which was an incredible joy.  And we passed out our Advent devotionals to the congregation---devotionals which were full of daily readings written by our church members. 

The church was packed--full of energy, life, and light.  At one point my wife Merideth leaned over to me and said, "This is so incredible."  I had to agree.  

But we weren't d…

Emmanuel - Week One: The Days Are Coming

The countdown begins.

Macy's parade is over, most or all of the Thanksgiving leftovers have been eaten. Can I get a witness on some Turkey sandwiches, church?

Black Friday is all done (thanks be to God).  Cyber Monday is over, and Giving Tuesday, and Back to the Store Wednesday, and Let's Hit Those Amazon Deals Thursday, and then there will undoubtedly be a host of other special days for shopping...

So the question that so many of us have right now is simply, "Why don't we just get on with it?  Let's go already!  The Christmas decorations have been up in the stores for a month already, it stands to reason that we should just move right along and get right to the heart of the silly season.

More than a few of us are probably wishing that the whole thing was already over.  Perhaps it's too much--all of the shopping, busy-ness, traffic on the streets, commercials, emails advertising, expenses and the like...

I get all of this.  Heck, I even feel the same way to be hone…