Advent, Call, Church Life, Ministry

Words of Assurance

On a frigid December 23rd, so cold my gas cap froze, I drove hours on Maine highways to a denominational meeting. Imagine scheduling a meeting for the 23rd! I was feeling pretty glum about my ministry in my first call; the small church I served had serious budget issues, and I felt like a failure. A much older pastor sat next to me and listened to my story at the lunch break. He offered a kind word; I wasn’t the only person responsible for the situation.

I hesitated to believe him.

I loved church, and I loved the church I served, but I started the drive home wondering whether I had misheard God’s call on my life. Did God really want me to be a pastor? Did I really want to be a pastor? And if that wasn’t who I was supposed to be, who was I?

Winter road leading into snow-covered trees with the following words: Did God really want me to be a pastor? Did I really want to be a pastor? And if that wasn't who I was supposed to be, who was I?

In this year – this second year – in which loss and frustration and disappointment have swirled together, many pastors have asked some version of these questions, and we are not the only people of faith wondering what God really wants for us and from us. Who are we supposed to be?

A recording by the choir at my home church was in the CD player that afternoon, a program of the music for Christmas Eve when I was still a seminarian and sang with them. As an organ piece ended, I heard the opening bars of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” I had loved processing with that large choir on Christmas Eve, experiencing the joy of being an alto who joined the sopranos for the descant on “Sing, choirs of angels.”

I began to sing with them. I couldn’t help myself.

We reached a verse sung a capella.

Child, for us sinners poor and in the manger,
We would embrace Thee, with love and awe;
Who would not love Thee, loving us so dearly?

In that question, I sang the answer to my questions. It didn’t balance the budget, but it consoled me, reminding who I was and whose I was. I could not trust it in the words of my colleague, but I could not deny it in the verse I had forgotten. Those words re-membered me; they put me back together.

May the coming days offer each of us such a numinous assurance. God who loves us is God-with-us.

Blue image with winter flowers and the following text: God who oves is is God-with-us.

(Choral nerds might like to know that it was the Willcocks’ Carols for Choirs arrangement.)

Advent, Reflectionary

Restored by Love

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80:3

When I woke up Monday morning, all my Twitter notifications were about Hallmark. Last week, the Hallmark Channel responded to complaints from a conservative organization by removing ads from Zola, a wedding registry website, that featured lesbian brides. As the story unfolded, I saw the expected demands for boycotts of the channel and accountability from the parent company. But I also saw calls for wider representation in the cable network’s movies; viewers want to see lead characters in romantic movies who are not only not straight but also not exclusively white and Christian.

It all connects for me to the refrain in Psalm 80, which I find captivating whenever it appears in Advent. “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” It’s a reminder that the light we are seeking is not just a source of illumination but a sense of recognition and an assurance of connection. 

We want and need to feel seen by God, seen for how we are and who we are. We want and need to feel seen by others, seen for how we are and who we are. 

As in most situations where a company is perceived as too loose by some and too exclusionary by others (see Chik Fil A), it’s hard to calculate how one average person’s actions can make a difference in changing things until we come down from the balcony view and consider the people around us. The kind of love that restores us is active attention. 

While I was working on this reflection, I mistyped “restored” as “restoried,” and I think that’s an apt and imaginative prescription for this season. Somewhere today each of us will come in contact with someone who needs to know about God’s restoring love. They might be the person shopping at Target with a small, cranky child and drawing negative attention. They might be stopping by our office with a surface purpose that camouflages an underlying need. That person might even be looking back at us from the mirror. In the hurry of this season we may want to keep to ourselves and ignore the situation, or stick to the task that keeps us from going deep, or keep compartmentalizing whatever is hard until after the holidays. And we would miss the opportunity for restorying that leads to restoration, for all of us.

Restorying can take place in words, or actions, or even a glance of recognition and empathy. If you have ever been the parent whose child is melting down and received a kind word or a smile from the person standing behind you in checkout line, you’ll know that’s “feeling seen” in the best way. A kindly gesture of recognition is one of the easiest forms of restoration we can offer. We can go deeper and listen well for what is needed, offer assistance that is wanted, or advocate where we have influence. 

Joseph was already planning to behave as a righteous man would, offering Mary release from their promises without making a big deal about it. A nighttime visit from an angel moved him to go deeper, to embrace a different story, and to restore their relationship. 

May we, too, listen to our better angels and offer restoration, because we love God, whose shining face shines restores us, too.

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Advent, Reflectionary

Released for Joy

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Isaiah 35:10

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in 2008, I felt like life as I knew it was over. The stiffness and pain in my hands impacted daily activities, like preparing vegetables for dinner, or holding a pen to write a check. I had trouble squeezing the handle of the pump to put gas in my car. There was one morning when I couldn’t turn the knob to open the door and get out of my own bedroom. Creative pleasures like knitting and playing the piano seemed sure to be over for me.

I felt trapped, waiting to learn if medication would help, unsure of the long-term prognosis.

A friend who had been living with the same chronic illness since childhood pointed me to this section of Isaiah. “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees,” I read in verse 3. Was this a commandment or a prophesy? Strengthening my weak hands and firming up my stiff and painful knees seemed unlikely, even impossible.

Isaiah points to the time when all the things holding us captive will be reversed, the prison doors opened, the locked windows thrown wide, the time when joy deferred becomes joy unstopped. Both Psalm 146 and its alternate choice, the Magnificat, lay out God’s plan for upsetting earthly power structures. And in Matthew 11, an indirect conversation conducted by messages to and from jail shows how the expectations John the Baptist had for the Messiah have been upended by Jesus.

Most of the time we are in the prison cell with John, feeling the limits on our power to affect change, wondering if any of the things we planned will ever come to fruition, waiting on God to show up in the form we expect and prefer. To that, we are all captive. And yet here we have this promise of God’s Holy Way, running like a ribbon of road through scripture. The reversals we hope and pray for are the will of God, who will bring wholeness, freedom, and joy.

Sometimes I am immobilized by a sense of my weakness, my feebleness, my “what I do doesn’t matter-ness.” My illness feels like a trap. I feel a kinship with Mary and wonder if she felt captive to the appearance of the angel and the overshadowing power of the Most High. She wondered how it could be possible, this commanding prophesy, this prophetic commandment.

Still, she said yes to it. She embraced God’s reversal of her life, of the expectations everyone else had for her, of the limits she held for herself. If you preach the Magnificat, I hope you will add the three words the lectionary leaves off, “And Mary said…”

Those words remind us she was a prophet.

Whatever is binding us, stalling us, holding us captive, may we, too, embrace the reversals promised by God and be released for joy.

Purple and orange crocuses bloom from dry leaves. The text is "Advent 3. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom. Isaiah 35:1"

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