Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eve of Christmas Eve

Our first Advent season (as pastors) is almost complete. Sunday we lit the fourth candle in the Advent wreath, the church is decorated with Chrismons, greens, angels, a star, the nativity scene, poinsettias, lights, and candles. Wreaths are hung on the doors and every post and pillar is covered in fresh greens and red bows. The bulletins for our two Christmas eve services are printed. We are almost ready. Just a few final touches, and we will celebrate one of the most joyous times in the Christian church - the birth of Christ.

We, along with the chorus of angels, proclaim, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14)."

To each of you, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and safe travels to all who will be traveling to visit friends and families.

Ray and Ruth Ann

Monday, December 8, 2008


Last week I was ahead of the typical New Year’s schedule; this week I have fallen behind! I know this is already the second week of Advent – but I still want to post a reflection on the first week of Advent - so, before Ray posts on the second week, and before I start to study next week’s texts, here is a look back at the theme for the last week...

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

I don’t like deadlines, but I have come to realize that deadlines are often what really drive my actions. I often don’t work on a chore or a project very much before it urgently needs to be done. I may think about it, or even plan for it, but I don’t really get down to working seriously on it until the deadline approaches. My motto could be “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”

This practice actually served me pretty well in my business career. I was able to arrange projects and reports by due date, figure out what tasks were required to complete the project or what information was needed to compile the reports, and set my priorities according to those deadlines. And after all, I managed the materials department of a manufacturing company – just in time wasn’t a bad thing. Many of you know it is generally a rule for inventory control – get materials into the building when they are needed, but no sooner. Just in time became a way of life for me.

Today’s Gospel text reminds me that other people are like that too. Earlier in this chapter of Mark’s gospel, the disciples marveled at the wonderful buildings in the city of Jerusalem and Jesus told them that one day, those great buildings would be thrown down – not one stone would be left upon another. Then the disciples asked Jesus when that would be and what the signs would be that it was about to happen. Jesus then gave them many warnings about the things to come, but as we just read, he did not tell them when those things would happen.

The disciples probably didn’t want to know when all that would happen so that they could plan well ahead, making preparations a little bit each day until the time came, but so that they could go on living normally until the last minute – until the deadline was quickly approaching – and still get themselves ready. Just in time.

But the warning that Jesus gives to the disciples is not to find out when the deadline is and plan accordingly. Jesus tells them to keep awake. To pay attention.

Jesus was telling us that we do not need for God to tell us exactly when the Son of Man will be coming in glory. We do not need our appointment calendars and Palm Pilots to plan ahead for that time. Instead, we should keep awake, pay attention, and be prepared, and we too, will recognize the signs when it is about to happen.

We have begun a new year in the church. Thanksgiving is over, but in spite of the evidence in the shopping malls and on the radio waves, it isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent. Advent is a time of being awake, paying attention, and preparing for – and waiting for - the coming of the Son of God.

We are not just preparing for Christmas; for the birth of the Messiah as a tiny baby in Bethlehem. We are also preparing for the coming of the Son of Man in all his power and glory as the king of heaven and earth. While we are putting up the lights and the trees and the tinsel in our homes and offices; while we are shopping and baking and gathering with friends; while we are singing carols and sending cards and oh so busy preparing for Christmas with our families; while we are doing all those things we must remember to keep awake, to pay attention to the signs in the world around us, and to prepare for the coming of the King. For he will come again.

Jesus told his disciples to look for the signs and to be prepared. I think he was also telling them – and us - that we should yearn for his coming. Like the prophet Isaiah, we should call out for the Lord to tear open the heavens and come down. Like the psalmist, we should beg for God to stir up his strength and come to help us. Like the apostle Paul, we should desire for Jesus Christ to strengthen us and keep us until the day of the Lord.

All of these texts point toward a theme for this first week in Advent: “pleading for the coming.” As we do what all of these texts urge us to do, we are pleading for Christ the Lord to come again. We are pleading for Christ to come to make his might known. We are pleading with Christ to set all the wrongs of the world right, to restore us to true fellowship with each other and with all of creation, to find us blameless so that we can feel God’s face shine on us. We are pleading for God to fulfill the promise and bring salvation to the world.

In this time of economic hardship, of high prices and high unemployment; in this time of pain and illness and suffering and grief; in this time of fear and uncertainty, we need to remember that we can depend on God. We cannot depend on our own strength or our own ability to plan ahead. We do not know the day or the hour when he will come.

While we can be alert for the signs of Christ’s coming, we cannot mark our calendars or set alarms and plan ahead for a specific day and time. We cannot create a checklist of things to be done before his arrival. We can keep awake; we can prepare. Preparing for Christ’s coming means living faithfully until he comes again: praying and worshipping and studying scripture. It means doing the work of the kingdom; living out our faith in our daily lives, in our homes and at our jobs. It means loving God and loving our neighbors in this time of waiting and preparation.

Only God the Father knows the real deadline – the time of the final coming of the Son of Man. Rather than hope to postpone that deadline, we should plead for it to come soon, echoing the words of the church throughout the years: Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Welcoming the new year

This is a picture of the Advent wreath in our home.

I know, it isn’t 2009 yet – but it is the beginning of the new church year. This year, since we are still new in our ministry and just getting settled into our home, we decided to celebrate the beginning of Advent with an unusual event. We invited the members of the congregation’s call committee – now our mutual ministry committee – and their spouses to our home for a service of house blessing.

This small group gathered Sunday afternoon and we moved together from room to room, bearing a candle and a cross, taking turns praying not just for Ray and me as the residents of the house, but for those who will be welcomed into our home as guests, and for the many blessings we all often take for granted.

Thanksgiving and Advent seemed to meld beautifully as we prayed gratefully for peaceful rest, for refreshing water, and nourishing food. We prayed for the places in our home where study and chores like laundry take place. We prayed for creation found just outside our doors and windows. We even prayed for our beloved dog, Smokey, who attentively stood nearby during this prayer, then sat down quietly as we said amen!

And no, this wasn’t a rite we made up. This is a set of prayers that existed before, but have recently been updated in the new Pastoral Care book published by Augsburg Fortress. It was a very powerful experience to welcome others into our home and invite them to pray for us, our home, and our loved ones. It truly provided an opportunity for us to give thanks for our call to ministry in this place, for the comforts of our new home, for the joys of new relationships, and for the opportunities which lie ahead.

All in all, a wonderful way to celebrate the beginning of a new year!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Preparing for Advent

Who knew that planning for Advent could be so challenging? One of the things about the first Advent as the pastor of a church is learning the traditions that already exist. When do the decorations come out? Where do they go? What color are the candles in the advent wreath? So many questions.

It has been really interesting to learn the traditions and practices of a new place. You might think that all Lutheran churches celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas in the same way, but you would be very wrong. Some celebrate Advent in a very deliberate way; others as nothing more than a warm-up to Christmas. Of course, there are many traditions in-between as well.

Here we are trying for a mix of the common and expected traditions that have historically been a part of the church, along with some of the local traditions. We are beginning with the Advent wreath with no other decorations in the sanctuary. During Advent, we will add more each week - first, the tree, followed by lights and chrismons. Then, we will add greens and other decorations throughout the church. Finally, a star will be hung, the nativity set added, and then just before Christmas eve, poinsettias will be added throughout the sanctuary.

During the season of Advent, we will plead, prepare, proclaim, and participate in the rituals of the season leading up to Christmas. As we wait and prepare for the coming of the Christ child, we behold the wondrous mysteries of God and His care for His creation.

"A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:3)." How are you preparing?