With laughter in his eyes ...

"Advent begins in the dark and yearns for the light.

Advent aches for the day when we shall not learn war anymore.

Advent yearns for 'the last day, when Jesus Christ shall come in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead.'

And when he comes, we shall sob.

Sob with relief at his return. 

Sob with humiliation and sadness at what we have done to one another.

But he shall not turn away to let us get ourselves together. 

He shall gather us up in his arms, with laughter in his eyes, and rise with us to life immortal. 

And our dark hearts will no longer be dark.

Our deepest desire will be to be ruled by him, who rules with grace.

We will love him because he has loved us.

We may long for his judgment and authority because he once visited us in great humility.

The darkness of your heart beckoned him, and he came for you."

(From Faith Once Delivered, by Paul N. Walker)

Unclench your fists ...

I get asked a lot about prayer.

What is it?

How do you do it?

How can I get better at it?

Is there a right way?

Can I take a class on it?

Isn't it interesting that something so seemingly simple as lifting up your thoughts, hopes, cares and concerns to the God who loves you is something we make so complicated?

I think our problem isn't that we don't know what prayer really is.

I think the deeper issue is perhaps that God doesn't do what we "ask" (tell?) God to do and so we want a  strategy. A true blue plan that works.

Well, there is no plan. There is no strategy, no magic, no program, no guarantee ...

I love how professor Wesley Hill defines prayer:

God is 'your Father,' and He already is disposed favorably toward you ... [So] go find a quiet place where you can relax ...

Unclench your fists.

Breathe deeply.

Let your heart rate decrease.

Know that you are already bathed in the Father's love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you're speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction. 

That's what prayer should be.

No class needed for that, friends.

Just a little time.

A little faith.

A little honesty with the  One who is already "cupping His ear in your direction."

Hunger is the best condiment ...

A bit more from the Advent essay I referenced in my last post ...

Author and Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren writes:

American culture insists that we run at breathless pace from sugar-laced celebration to celebration -- three months of Christmas to the Super Bowl, Mardi Gras, Valentine's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Fourth of July, and on and on. We suffer from a collective consumerist mania that demands we remain optimistic, shiny, happy and having fun, fun, fun.

But life isn't a Disney Cruise.

The tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration leaves us exhausted and often, ironically, feeling emptier. Many of us suffer 'holiday blues,' and I wonder whether this phenomenon is made worse by the incessant demand for cheer -- the collective lie that through enough work and positivity, we can perfect our lives and our world.

We need communal rhythms that make deliberate space for both grief and joy. For me, the old saying rings true: Hunger is the best condiment. Abstaining, for a moment, from the clamor of compulsive jollification, and instead leaning into the reality of human tragedy and of my own need and brokenness, allows my experience of glory at Christmastime to feel not only more emotionally sustainable but also more vivid, vital and cherished.

I love the phrase "tyranny of relentless mandatory celebration." I feel the weariness of that in my own life after too many big events, too many overflowing platters of rich food, too much loud, clangy music. Too many rounds of The Carol of the Bells, if you know what I mean.

What if we used the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas to eke out a small bit of space to reflect?

To reflect on our own internal darkness and need ...

To reflect on the world around us and to work to see it as it really is - achingly beautiful and heartbreakingly broken ...

To reflect on the desperate need of humanity for Someone larger than ourselves to rescue us, to redeem us, to restore this whirling planet to its original intent ...

To reflect on our collective need for a Savior ...

If we can do this - find time to reflect - perhaps the Christmas story of a baby born in a stable on a cold winter's night might strike us as the exact kind of miracle we all need.

Pause and look ...

I read a fabulous essay this past weekend about the season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas Day. (See essay here - https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html)

What struck me most was the author's gentle encouragement, before we break out into our quintessential American frenetic celebration, "first to pause and look, with complete honesty, at the darkness."

She writes:

To observe Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.

Too many of us see the four weeks before Christmas Day as merely an opportunity to buy gifts, decorate, attend parties and prepare for family gatherings. All good things.

But what if that is ALL we do?

What if - due to perceived time constraints - we simply feel we cannot slow down long enough to look around and face our reality?

Even more likely, what if we refuse to face the darkness - within and without - because it is frankly too painful to face? Because it makes us feel too much existential angst?

If we refuse to face the darkness, I believe, as does the author of this essay, that our celebration of what Christmas stands for, the event it celebrates, is dramatically diminished. There is a falsity to it. A fakeness. It becomes merely a shallow dip into overindulgent materialism and phony merriment.

There is much darkness all around ... hungry refugees, war, political antagonism, climate catastrophe, family estrangement, disease, denial, corruption.

There is much darkness within ... arrogance, selfishness, greed, lust, meanness, hoarding, a coarseness toward the poor, toward our neighbor, toward those we love.

I know it may seem morose to ponder these things. I get it.  Yet the invitation this challenging essay offers compels me to sit in my own darkness for a season and to ponder my powerless over it; to ponder my powerlessness over the darkness all around me.

I need to stare all the darkness squarely in the face.

Only then will my soul "exceedingly rejoice" when Christmas Day breaks afresh.

Jesus, the light of the world, the only light strong enough to defeat the darkness without and the darkness within ... Jesus is born. 



God is here ...

My most recent sermon is about the fact that God is omnipresent; meaning there is no place or space or moment in time where God is not present.

This changes everything.

Every moment - no matter how mundane, boring or ordinary - is a moment filled with the presence of God.

It is our job to become awake to this truth; to stop living half-asleep, dulled into using made-up descriptive words like sacred or secular, holy or unholy.

We must stop praying, "God, please be with us ..."

God IS with us. It is we who are absent. It is we who need to be invoked.

I stumbled across a piece of paper on which John Ortberg's thoughts about God's omnipresence were presented in bullet form.

See what you think:

* God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see God.

* Coming to recognize and experience God's presence is learned behavior; I can cultivate it.

* My task is to meet God in this moment.

*I am always tempted to live "outside" this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God's presence.

* Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.

* Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.

* No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God's presence.

* My desire for God ebbs and flows, but God's desire for me is constant. 

* Every thought carries a "spiritual charge" that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.

* Every aspect of my life - work, relationships, hobbies, errands - is of immense and genuine interest to God.

* My path to experiencing God's presence will not look quite like anyone else's.

* Straining and trying too hard do not help.

Pay attention, friends.

Every moment is holy.

God is here.


Prayer and dogs, Part 3 ...

One evening, many years ago, I was preparing a Stouffer's frozen lasagna for dinner.

Our kids were watching TV or doing homework.

I was looking forward to an easy meal - just pop the lasagna out of the freezer, put it on a baking sheet and toss it in the oven. Voila! Dinner is served.

One of the habits of our old chocolate lab, Chessy, was to troll around the kitchen during meal prep hoping that a scrap or two would make its way onto the floor for her consumption. Since I am kind of a messy cook, she was often rewarded.

But this night, oh this night, she was about to be rewarded beyond her wildest imagination.

For as I pulled the cooked lasagna out of the oven and placed it on the counter to cool, something strange happened.

The baking sheet I had placed the lasagna on had somehow gotten a bit twisted up in the oven and a slight bend was created.

And as that baking sheet cooled, the twist untwisted ...

And that hot pan of lasagna launched into the air and turned upside down and landed right on Chessy's wandering back.

In a moment of extreme shock and surprise Chessy was simultaneously injured and in heaven.

Yes, the lasagna was hot.

But that hot lasagna was not only on her back, but it was on the floor and then, very quickly, in a twinkle of an eye, it was in her mouth ... all of it.

All I could do was yell, "Chuck, order some pizza!!!" and then laugh at the exquisite level of joy and amazement of my always-hungry dog eating the very best surprise of her life.

What does this have to do with prayer?

Sometimes, we don't even know what to pray for.

Sometimes, we just walk around with unspoken yearnings.

Sometimes, God hears the unspoken desires of our heart.

And sometimes, not all the time lest we become numb, God gives us more than we could ever ask or imagine and, like a flying pan of lasagna landing on the back of my dog, a gift lands in our lap, seemingly out of the blue ...

but we know from whence it came,

and our only response is to cry out in joy and gobble it up with gratitude!

This, too, is a sort of a prayer.


Prayer and dogs, Part 2

Our current chocolate lab, Stella, loves to eat.

We feed her the same amount of the same food every day at 7:30 AM and 5:30 PM.

We have never failed to feed her.

Yet each day, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes prior to mealtime, she starts to worry. She starts to hover around me, restless, urgently staring at me, unsettled. 

It's as if she is worried I am not going to come through for her, even though I have always come through for her.

It really irritates me.

I can't understand why she doesn't trust me.

Haven't I always been faithful?

Doesn't she know I promise to take care of her?

Doesn't she know I want her to thrive and will provide what she needs?

Why does she act as if none of these things are true?

I will feed her no matter what she does. She's my dog and I love her. 

I feel sorry for her and wish she would actually LIVE those wasted moments prior to mealtime, rather than fritter them away with anxious care. All her anxious care is a complete waste of time.

This makes me wonder if God is, at times, saddened by my anxiety, my worry that he will not provide what I need when I need it, even though he has proven himself faithful year after year after year.

When I ask the same thing over and over and over again is it like Stella circling me as if all her frantic energy is what is going to cause me to eventually give in and feed her? 

When I pray, I can rest in the knowledge that my needs and concerns are in God's good care. Yes, I can pray again about the same thing, but I certainly don't need to nip at God's heels as if he is unconcerned or unaware of my issues. God's actions flow out of his love, they are not responses to my level of energy expenditure.

God knows what I need even before I ask.

My job, it seems, is to live a life of childlike trust.

The kind of trust I wish my Stella would offer me.

Because every day at 7:30 and 5:30 I will provide what she needs.

Always have. Always will.



Prayer and dogs, Part 1 ...

When our first chocolate lab, Chessy, got old, she could barely make her way up and down the basement stairs.

Once she shuffled her way down the stairs, making her way back up became questionable. She lurched. She stumbled. She huffed and puffed her way back up to the main floor, but only barely.

Eventually, I realized that it was simply cruel to allow her to descend to the cool, concrete floors of the basement, even in the summer heat. The chance she would never reemerge without me attempting to lug her squirmy, 80-pound body up the stairs was too great.

So I shut the door.

She would walk over to the door to the basement numerous times a day and simply stand at the door, patiently, quietly, waiting for me to open it so that she could get cool.

But I refused. I did not open the door.

She would stand and wait. And eventually, after looking at me with confusion, she would shuffle off to a cooler part of the main floor and plop down with a heavy sigh of disappointment.

She had no idea I had shut the door for her own good. All she saw was the closed door.

One day, I found myself talking to her:

"Chessy, I know you want to go downstairs. And I know you don't understand why I am saying no to you. But if I let you go down the stairs, if I let you do what you think you want to do, you may never come back up. I love you too much to make you suffer in that manner. So, even though it seems mean to you right now, I am keeping that door closed. I know, better than you, what is best for you and you just have to trust me."

As I heard these words come out of my mouth, I wondered:

Does God ever whisper similar sentiments to me?

Do I ever stand in front of doors wondering why God allows them to remain closed?

Do I imagine the better life on the other side, frustrated that God won't do what I want God to do - simply open the door? 

And does God then whisper to me:

"Alice, even though it seems mean to you right now, I am keeping that door closed. I know, better than you, what is best for you and you just have to trust me."

I bet God does ...

Prayer and patience ...

God's timing is not ours.

Can we all agree on that?

So, when we pray, we wait. These two actions are inextricably linked.

But we are impatient people, aren't we?

We often interpret having to wait as God not answering our prayer.

I once heard that what God does in us while we wait is as important, if not MORE important, than what it is we are praying and waiting for.

Henri Nouwen would agree. Listen to what he wisely writes about patience:

"Being patient is difficult. It is not just waiting until something happens over which we have no control: the arrival of a bus, the end of the rain, the return of a friend, the resolution of a conflict. Patience is not waiting passively until someone else does something. Patience asks us to live the moment to the fullest, to be completely present to the moment, to taste the here and now, to be where we are. We behave as if the real thing will happen tomorrow, later, and somewhere else. Be patient and trust that the treasure you are looking for is hidden in the ground on which you stand."

As you pray and as you wait, can you at the same time live the current moment to the fullest?

Can you trust that God is at work behind the scenes of your life and therefore you are free to live each day as the gift it is, rather than thinking that "the real thing" will happen as soon as your prayer is answered; tomorrow rather than today?

I love Nouwen's last sentence - "Be patient and trust that the treasure you are looking for is hidden in the ground on which you stand."

Pray, friends! But as you do, understand patience will be asked of you. But patience isn't passivity. It is standing at attention, eyes wide open to all the answered prayers that are right in front of you, in this moment right now, hidden in the ground on which you stand.

God is too good ...

“God is too good to be unkind

and God is too wise to be mistaken.

So when we cannot trace God's hand,

we must trust God's heart.”

(Charles Spurgeon, 1834 - 1892)