Thursday, December 8, 2011

Inviting Jesus In:
Meditations for a Holy Advent

As a bonus this week, here are meditations from a Quiet Evening I had the privilege of leading at Church of the Messiah (Gonzales, TX) last night.


Inviting Jesus In:
Meditations for a Holy Advent


So, you’ve made it to a quiet evening.  And you may be wondering why you’ve come or what will come of it.  I’m with you.  Let me share the beginning of a letter I wrote to my parish two weeks ago, as I was getting ready to share tonight with you:

This week, I am preparing meditations for an Advent Quiet Evening at my father’s church.  This seems strange to me on several levels.  First, to be asked to lead such an evening by a parent - someone who knows me at a depth beyond all pretending - is deeply humbling.  There’s no sense of my having inadvertently fooled anyone into believing a false impression about the person they’ve invited.  Second, and more obviously, a Quiet Evening in Advent is, for most of us, an oxymoron with which we might not know what to do. 

For most of us, in practice, Advent serves as the de facto series of warm-up parties before the Big Day.  Folks gather in these days of early dusk for port wine and popcorn balls.  We scurry about in busyness between our popcorn parties, looking for presents for one another.  There’s very little quiet suggested by the season.  In fact, when the notion of quiet does finally come up – if it does at all – it’s usually proposed as an escape from the season: “I can’t wait until this is over and the season is gone.”  What a tragedy.

Maybe you’re here to avoid the tragedy.  Or simply to name it.  Maybe you just need a safe place.  Times of holy silence can be good for all of these things.  

But maybe you don’t trust yourself to know what to do with silence.  Suppose you and I don’t do this thing right.  A couple of words might be in order by way of simple instruction for the time of silence we’re about to share:

First, remember (above all else) that you can’t mess it up.  Holy silence is not your job to perform; it’s God’s gift to you.  It’s God’s desire to hold you in the midst of so much noise.

Second, if you don’t spend much time in silence - or haven’t in a while - it’s not just possible that tonight will feel weird for you, it’s almost guaranteed.  Being quiet together in community, we’ll have to remind ourselves not to speak the automatic and polite words we use so often to our fellow brothers and sisters.  This is meant to be a gift, too.  The gift of enjoying one another without the pressure to perform.  This will feel strange, but good, I hope.  

The second weirdness belongs to the time when you’ve finally settled down in silence, just you and God, and then, in that moment, any one of a thousand other things breaks the peace you want to enter.  Grocery lists, Christmas dinner menus, family phone calls you forgot to return, they’ll want to come into the silence.  My experience says that it’s best not to fight them, but to name them, acknowledge them, and slowly work back to your focus - to God, where the goal is to be still.  

Some folks find it helpful to focus on some aspect of the present moment: like their breathing; pay attention to your posture; your surroundings.  Be present to the present.  Be planted in the moment.  Additionally, other folks find that a holy word helps to call them back when they find themselves distracted.  Some people will tell you to put your watches away.  I actually find it helpful to keep mine out (or at least to keep it handy), and to note the time when I decide to be present to God and to also note the time when I get distracted.  How long did I make it?  I did this on an eighteen minute walk the other day and never made it more than two-and-a-half minutes.  It was a busy day.  Each time, I would smile at my weakness, thank God for the two-and-a-half minutes, reset my intention, and begin again.

You may want to keep paper and pen handy.  If a thought - either distracting OR holy - keeps re-entering the picture, give the thought its peace by writing it down.  It will be there for you when you are through.

Last thing: a word about the evening.  Throughout the evening we’ll gather here for three times of meditation.  Three images, really, to order the silence.  I’ll share the first meditation after we’ve all had a chance to get up and stretch; we’ll begin the silence.  Between the meditations, you are free to stay in this space or equally to wander off.  Your cue and call to return, to gather here for meditation or prayer, will be the bell.  

That’s it.  Silence is simple.  Be well and be present, to God and yourself.  Mother Teresa once said that “God is the friend of silence.”  We seek friendship with silence because we long for friendship with God.  Be friends with this time.

Now get up - get any last words, noises, squawks, out of you.  Stretch.  Turn off your phone. Loosen your body.  And we’ll begin in a moment.


Mediation I: The Light of the World

The first image I want to share with you comes from the book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  That’s the old King James.  The more contemporary language puts it this way: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;” and then, “if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

This verse inspired the painting, called “The Light of the World” by William Holman Hunt, in the 19th century.

This painting is my picture of Advent.  Advent means coming.  Christ will come again, we’re told.  The first and second comings of Christ.  Like a thief in the night.  And I’ve often wondered what kind of self-respecting Savior would come like a thief, late at night.

But then, in the painting, we see the thorns on his head and remember that self-respect wasn’t something our Lord got especially hung up on.

In the painting, there is Christ, knocking on the door, presumably of your heart.  And he’s patient.  And maybe because I think of this painting at Advent, I imagine that it’s cold outside.  The many layers of clothing Jesus wears in the painting make me think that’s the case.  It feels like a painting for short days and long nights and dark skies and potatoes and stew and all of the things that make this time of year eerily cozy and uniquely compelling.  The season of haunting Christmas melodies and the company of carolers.

But there are no carolers in this painting.  They’ve all gone home.  It’s that hour some call the witching hour, and only Christ is out there.  

Behold I stand at the door and knock, and I notice the door, how there’s no knob, how it can only be opened from the inside.  And I notice the vines, overgrown on the door.  And I wonder about the vines that adorn the door.  At the very least, they say that the door might need a push to open.  That it hasn’t been opened in a while.  That it’s stiff.  But maybe the vines are more than descriptive - maybe they do more than tell a story of inactivity.  Maybe they’re active; maybe they hold the door shut.  
And few of us are completely boarded and shut up - like a shop in a town that waits for a hurricane - few of us are that barren, that deserted.  But most of us have closed off places.  Hidden gardens.  Locked-off chambers, and the vines that grow on the doors of these parts of ourselves are like wounds - or protectors, guardians of wounds, of deep hurts and quiet shames.  These places aren’t pretty, and in fact, we like it that way, because the more disheveled these parts of us look, the more likely any visitor is to move on.  To assume it’s been abandoned.  That there is no one home.  But it’s not abandoned.  We’re still in there.  And while the pain of the loneliness isn’t as bad as we imagine the pain of the touch might be, it’s close.  The vines that protect us protect us in prisons.

As if in answer to a prayer we don’t really mean, he comes full of mercy and knocks on the door.

He knocks on the door.  And the look in his eyes reveals a mutual loneliness.  While I am alone, locked in my room with myself and my fears, he is likewise alone.  Wandering the night, coming again, and knocking on doors, my door, with a face that says he’s realistic about his prospects.
Strangely, undeniably, I am the reason he is alone.  Can there be such a thing as a union of loneliness?  His is a voluntary loneliness meant to end my loneliness, because he’s knocking on my door.  Here is almost an echo of the cross on which he hung and yelled from Golgotha, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Alone to end all loneliness.  To lift the world up to God, to restore my soul, to invite us to love, to fill us with joy, and to make his own joy complete.  So he knocks.

In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the image this way: Christ “himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”  

The wall is torn down.  Yet for love, he wanders and knocks.  

This begins are first time of quiet reflection.  Some optional questions for this time of reflection (you can pick them up in the back):


Questions for Mediation I: The Light of the World

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”  Revelation 3:20  

i. What do you notice about William Hunt’s painting that tells you something either about God or yourself?
ii. After the resurrection, Mary “mistakes” Jesus for the gardener outside the tomb.  What hope does the image of Jesus as gardener suggest to you as you consider the symbolic vines in Hunts painting and your own life?
iii. What does the inside of your dwelling look like?  (This isn’t a metaphor question so much as an invitation to artists.  Draw the “other side” of Hunt’s work.)


Mediation II: Mary and the New Exodus

Our first image for this evening was of Jesus knocking at the door of your heart.  A symbol picture both of Christ’s first coming and also of his second.  The second image moves us more obviously toward the season of Christmas: the Christ child’s birth and the hay and the manger; good news and glad tidings. The second image is the story of Mary.

From Luke’s gospel:

And [the angel] came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’  Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Mary says “yes” to the Spirit.  Not just the “yes” of agreement with a fact; the “yes” of invitation in one’s heart and soul and body.  Mary becomes a picture of the door opened to God from the inside.  She conceives the child by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit comes upon her.  And from the book of Acts we remember that the Spirit comes like fire.

Think back to our first image, Jesus knocking at the door, and remember that Jesus also comes to us with the lantern, the promise of fire.

Now, the mixing of images like this - Pentecost and fire and Holy Spirit and Mary and the angel - may seem strange to us, but it was not strange at all to the early mothers and fathers of the church.  Holy imagination came easily to them.  They heard the promise to Mary, that she would conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, and they not only thought forward to Pentecost and to fire, they also thought backward, to another holy fire: Moses and the burning bush.  

The burning bush: the presence of God; holy ground; and the bush burned but it was not consumed.  In the view of the early church, Mary, also, held the presence of God - the Spirit came upon her, that image of fire - and yet she was not consumed.  She beheld and held the holy, as a child in her ams, and lived.  Mary as the burning bush.

And we think back to that first bush and Moses, and the message he received: freedom for God’s people.  And Mary receives in her body the promise of a second exodus: freedom for God’s people.

This second image threatens the suspense of the first image, I think.  Where the first image centered around my response to a lonely Christ - leaving us to imagine that it would be possible to simply stand in the silence and leave the door shut - this image reminds us that Christ is not everywhere lonely, that throughout the ages, the saints have said “yes,” like Mary - most especially Mary.  And that, because Mary said “yes,” God’s presence is already lit in God’s people; the fire is burning and spreading and lighting hearts with Good News and the glory, the power, of God.

Mary said “yes,” and the Spirit of God came upon her.  And she bore a son, even Christ.  And Christ’s promised gift as he left to his disciples, to his friends, was to pour out the Spirit that came on Mary on them - the Spirit, like fire.  To light them, to fill them, to empower them to live lives whose light would be beacons of power and hope to the powerless and the hopeless.  Because she said “yes.”  

And so the early church called Mary the burning bush - because she held the holy and was not consumed - and they called the Church the new Mary.  The one in whom the fullness of Christ is pleased to dwell.  Because the Spirit that came on her now lives in us, too.

And so, with hearts on fire, we sing the song: “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

Questions for Mediation II: Mary and the New Exodus

“Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” Luke 1:38

i. How does putting the stories of the burning bush and Pentecost alongside the story of Mary shape or change the way you think about Christmas? 

ii. When have you said “yes” to God and felt the power of the Holy Spirit?
iii. In Galatians, Paul says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  Which of these fruit most resonates with you and your life situation just now?  In which would you most like the Spirit to grow?



Mediation III:  And I in Him

So far, we have explored two images of invitation: the first of inviting Jesus into our hearts, as he knocks at the door; the second of Mary’s inviting the Spirit to come upon and overshadow her: it’s the Christmas story of Jesus.  The third image is an image that either destroys or completes the first two images, depending how you come at it.

It is an image that suggests that even as I invite Jesus in, even as it is fully true that he takes up a dwelling in me - maybe because it is fully true that he takes up a dwelling in me - I learn that I am the one who finds a new home - a new home in him.  I am brought outside of myself and made full friends with God.  And not just with God, but with all of God’s friends.

This is the image, the action, of Holy Communion.  In Holy Communion, the presence of God enters me in a special way.  When I put out my hands to receive the bread, drink the wine, I open the door.  In Holy Communion, you give your best “yes” to the Spirit, like Mary.  The Spirit indwells you.  But in nearly every version of our Eucharistic prayer, you also live in the Spirit.  You find a new home in the provision and presence of God.

So, for example, in the first prayer of the Rite I liturgy, we pray that we would be “filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”  

And again in the second prayer of Rite I: “and also that we and all thy whole church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.”

In Rite II, both prayers A and B, the language is different, but the point is the same: “Sanctify us,” we pray - that is, give us your Spirit, like Mary - “...that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.”

And we in him.  An eternal kingdom.  A new home.
The promise of a new home is Good News.  It’s also hard news, because we have learned to feel at home in our homes, even, as we explored in the first image, when they’re painful.  A new home is a threat, but an invigorating threat like cold air on a long day’s walk; one that engages you for a journey.

To invite Jesus in is to be invited in turn to step out on a journey of which I am not in control.  And a part of me sighs with relief.  I am tired of trying to be in control.

The liturgy models this mystery: I receive Communion and then I am sent - to place and people I do not understand.  He comes in me, and I go out in the power of God’s Spirit.  He comes in, I go out.  To love and serve the Lord.  To learn the fullness of God’s majesty in the company of the sick and broken and loved by God.  And in life and death, too.  He comes in, we go out.  Are extinguished.  Dust to dust.  Asked to trust God’s word for each one of us: “Behold, I go to prepare a new place, a new home, for you.”  Like Mary again - new life and new birth.  A new home.  And this home is the mystery of the infinite depth and breadth of love in the life of the triune God.

And truthfully, I suspected this all along.  Even at the beginning, that if I opened the door, I would follow him out of it.  I would not resist this Jesus.  He would dwell in us; and we in him.  This is the uncomfortable peace of Advent.  This is the peace of his coming.

Finally, then, as we land on peace, I want to close with two hymns that you may already know.  

From William Alexander Percy:

They cast their nets in Galilee just off the hills of brown;
such happy, simple fisherfolk before the Lord came down.

Contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew
the peace of God that filled their hearts brimful and broke them too.

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail, homeless, in Patmos died.
Peter, who hauled the teeming net, headdown was crucified.

The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing--the marvelous peace of God.

And from that great poet WH Auden (my favorite of all time, I think):

He is the Way. Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth. Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life. Love Him in the World of the Flesh; And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

May the peace of the indwelling and unsettling Christ be yours tonight and always.  Amen.


Questions for Mediation III:  And I in Him

“...and also that we and all thy whole church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.” From the BCP 

i. When in your life have you walked out the door?  What was it like? 
ii.  If God intends to send you out to love and serve the Lord, what does the part of you that knows passion and zeal hope that God calls you out and into?  

iii.  In another hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea”; if we dwell in the God whose mercy is ocean-depth, what parts of God’s being do you most long to explore?

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem...and me.

[A sermon for Advent II, Dec 4, 2011]

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

These words reveal a people burdened and weighed down.  

Whether in fact or *only* the collective imagination of the people hardly matters.  When you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it. 

Such is the despair of the people called Israel in our reading from Isaiah.

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem." 

You can recognize a burdened state in your own life retroactively, I think, when you look back at those times in which the words of another felt the most tender.  Like they heard you.  Tender words because the other person saw your hurting - he or she really saw you - you were not invisible in your suffering.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. 

When Israel receives the comfort of God, comfort means that God sees the suffering of the people.  The first pain remains, for a short time, anyway.  The second pain of being alone in one's suffering is removed.

When have you heard a tender voice?  What are the regularly tender voices in your life?

It takes patience to speak tenderly.  God is patient.  In fact, Peter says in the epistle this morning that, exactly when things seem slowest, take the longest, the patience of God is revealed because the Lord does not want any to perish.  Therefore, says St Peter, "...regard the patience of our Lord as salvation."
Comfort my people, says your God.

And even though the reading that begin with comfort continues with language that we, on the other side of Christ's coming, recognize as pointing to Christ - even though we hear the words about preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness and we think of John the Baptist and Jesus - even though we hear these words from the other side of God's comfort, we find that we still have a need for tender words.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, says the Lord.  And, we would add, "speak tenderly to me."  Let me be visible, too.  Speak comfort to my Church, says your God.

Now, there's a recurring Charlie Brown bit that makes clear, I think, what tender words don't mean, at least in our setting.  Charlie Brown, dreaming out loud to Peppermint Patty that he longs for a woman who will kiss him on the forehead and whisper in his ear the words, "Poor, sweet baby."  Peppermint Patty is not impressed and walks away.  A few scenes later, it's Snoopy who whispers in soothing tones to Charlie Brown and kisses him on the forehead; Charlie Brown isn't amused - or comforted, for that matter.

Not the words of empty, self-serving pity, but words of comfort, true hope.  Words that name with honesty and compassion the burdens that we carry.  Words that carry the power of, and potential for, forgiveness.
Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned.  When you have given up hope, hope, like fresh fruit, can literally rot on the table in front of your eyes before you notice it.

A priest friend asked me once, "Jonathan, what do your folks bring with them to church?"  "What do you mean?" I asked, before adding,  "Coffee, sometimes, but they drink it in the back."  "No, that's not what I mean; what are they carrying, inside?"  "Lots of things," I said.  "Do you find that they carry their fair share of guilt?"  "Yeah," I said, "more than their share."  "Me too," he said.  "I hardly ever work to make people feel guilty because most of them are already guilty by the time I say, 'Good morning.'  It's built in.  No, I think the people have guilt down already.  What they need is God's comfort.  I try to speak comfort."

It's hard to speak comfort.  Not just, but especially for preachers, it's hard to speak comfort.  And not just because everybody else goes around trying to light guilt rockets under other people's behinds - especially in churches.  Blame is just reflected guilt. 

It's hard to speak comfort.  Hard to keep our composure when God looks each of us in the eye and, knowing all that we've done and all that we've failed to do - all that we are and all that we've failed to be - speaks tenderly to us.

"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins."

Her guilt is washed away.

I think that the yearning for these words is partly why so many of us, especially in previous generations (though I'm not giving up on this one), have found such comfort in the sacramental rite called the reconciliation of a penitent, known popularly as confession.

To have my sins made visible is to know that God sees my guilt.  To know in my head and my heart that I'm not fooling him.  Not that I CAN fool him, but sometimes I can fool myself into thinking I can fool him, if you know what I mean.  To unbury the guilts that I carry and lay them bare and to hear, even then, the comfort of God is a blessing beyond describing.  Many who experience it describe a literal unlocking in their bodies as they realize, only afterwards, how they had bodily carried their burdens in ways that deformed and crippled their souls.

"Cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid."

And so John the Baptist appears to prepare the way of the Lord, and his call is repentance.  Comfort them, says the Lord.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I am coming to dwell with them.  Make them able to believe my love for them when I say that I delight in them.

There's a church outside of Houston with a simple mission statement: "to be a place of sanctuary."  I thought to myself when I saw it: "Now that's a great mission for a dying church."  No language about outreach, no mission imperatives, no grand ideals for the community's impact on other people.  It sounded static.  Old-fashioned.  Passive.  So I looked the church up.  Three-fifty on Sunday, not counting an evening service packed full with youth.  I was wrong.  Nothing static about it.  A vibrant community serving others and giving of themselves in the world.  But principally centered around the idea that their mission is to be a sanctuary - understood here as a people in whom the fullness of God is pleased to dwell; a place and people of comfort, safe from guilt, rich in forgiveness and mercy and peace.

Thats the Gospel, by the way: that while we were warring with God, one another, and our selves, Christ Jesus came among us and died for us. 

Sanctuary.  Treaty.  Everlasting peace.  An end to the war.  Peace with God, one another, and even our selves. 

The Lord God "is speaking peace," says the psalmist, "to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him."  All of the readings today speak of peace, God's gift for God's people, and repentance is the pen-knife that opens the gift. 

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.

The gift is for you.  Because when you believe you are damned, you are damned; but if you seek - when you seek - the forgiveness of God, you will find him more than ready with tender words.  And the fruit called hope still fresh on the table.

Come to the table.  Hope is for you. 


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An Evening of Christmas Music

Please help us spread the word about this remarkable event at St Christopher's.  It's 2 most exciting features are:  1) the ecumenical gathering of churches for praise and singing as we prepare for the celebration of Christmas, and 2) the love offering, which enables Duke Div School seminarians to experience a field education placement in South Sudan. 

Can you imagine the perspective for ministry that such a placement would make possible??  And what a gift for ministry to the people of South Sudan.  If you can't make the event, but would like to make a donation, email me or send a check payable to St Christopher's by the Sea Episcopal Church (memo: "FIELD ED SUDAN") to PO BOX 386, Portland, TX  78374.

Thanks for you help, and hope you can join us!

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