Advent Longing

It is Advent in America, at least for those of us who recognize it. For the rest, it’s Christmastime. For weeks now merry music has been played in the malls and shopping mega-plexes in the metropolitan area where I live, and sparkling lights and shimmering decorations hang from trees and rooftops.

I am not much in the mood for Christmas this year, though I hope to be when the time for Christmas finally arrives. My mood is far more Advent-y that Christmas-y right now.

Actually, each year over the course of the past several, I have found myself less and less in the mood for Christmas before the day actually arrives. I find it difficult to make plans or decorate or even buy gifts. Christmas has become a real turn-off for me; but only (at least I hope) when it insists on crashing my Advent.

Call me a liturgical snob if you wish, but Advent is designed to be a time of waiting, of expectation, of preparation for the coming of Christ. It is a time when we are reminded that God loves the lonely, the poor, the outcast, the brokenhearted. It is a time when we sit in the dark waiting for Light to break in.

Or that’s the idea, anyway. We who are among the world’s wealthiest citizens perhaps would rather not be reminded of such things. We don’t have to wait; we are living the good life now, and we want to celebrate it. Sure, we’ll toss a toy to a poor kid and throw a few extra bucks in the offering plate to buy ham for the food pantry because, by golly, that’s what the good life is all about – sharing your blessings with the less fortunate. Right?

Our neighbor has a crèche in his front yard. Actually, I’m not sure it is worthy of being called a crèche, or a manger scene, or any of the words we would normally use to describe the nativity – baby Jesus in the manger, guarded by his two adoring parents. First, it is rather small. Tiny in comparison even to the monkey grass that grows behind it. Second, it sits all alone in the yard, with no other decorations, the bulbs that once lighted it apparently no longer glow.

I don’t even know why I noticed it, so unnoticeable as it is, a few houses down the street, but when I saw it my first instinct was to laugh. Okay… jeer. I smirked at its size, at its age, at its lily-white faces. The houses all around that one are decked out with icicle lights and blow up Santas and massive “Feliz Navidad”s. Who would embarrass themselves with such so-called “yard art” when it so obviously can’t compete with its surroundings?

But as I stood there looking, I became acutely aware of the presence of God. “Isn’t this the spirit of Christmas you’ve been looking for?” The question reverberated in my soul as I studied the little family, so small, so alone. And it struck me again that this is exactly how God came down – tiny, unnoticeable, into a world that claimed to be waiting for him yet couldn’t even be bothered to offer him a place to sleep.

I weep now for the small, unnoticed people among us; for the poor, for the lost, for the unwanted. And I weep for us because we do not see them; because we can’t be bothered by such things. And I yearn for Christmas. I yearn for Light to break into the darkness and save us all. Come, Lord Jesus.

Import December 12 169




After the mild winter we experienced in North Texas this year, spring seems almost redundant; and yet, I do love it! I love the green trees and the flowering plants. I love the warm sun and the longer days. I love driving around with my sun roof open and letting the wind toss my hair around. I am not so crazy about the pollen, but it comes with the territory. I’ll keep taking my antihistamine and hope for the best.

We can always find something to complain about (like the pollen) if we look, even in the best situations. I know a woman (who shall remain nameless because I am related to her!) about whom I have said, “If she won the lottery, she’d complain about paying the taxes!” This person puts on a happy face in public, and seems kind and loving, but those who know her well know the other side, and it is not pretty. No doubt she wants to be nice, but just under the surface hides a spirit of contempt and judgment, even for those closest to her. She can find the fault in just about anything or anyone, which is sad, because nothing on this planet is perfect. Yet.

As we prepare to celebrate Easter – the resurrection of Jesus and the hope it brings us – we still live in an unfinished world; a world that longs for the second coming of Christ and final redemption. We have the opportunity for joy that life in Christ brings us now – like we have the beauty of spring; but we still suffer from allergies – the brokenness and imperfection of the world around us. No, there are no perfect people yet (though even Jesus might fall short of some of our expectations!). And, yes, there are still allergies and taxes. So we have a choice to make.

We can choose to participate fully in the Life that Jesus offers, to revel in the warmth and the beauty we have in him, and to share our redemption with those around us; or we can choose to focus on the flaws we find in a world (and in a people) that isn’t quite fully redeemed. We can live in Light or we can live in darkness. What will you choose?

From time to time one of the professors I had in seminary, the irreverent, effervescent, impossibly intelligent Billy Abraham, spoke in whispers about his “pietist underwear.” I loved the phrase, which rolled off his tongue as though he had been practicing it for years (he had), because I am myself a not-so-closet pietist. I use pietist with a lowercase “p” because a) I’m not Lutheran, and b) I just don’t take myself that seriously.

I am a Wesleyan, though, and as a good Wesleyan I do have to care at least a little about my behavior. It’s that whole “General Rules” thing: First, do no harm; Second, do all the good you can; and Third, attend upon all the ordinances of God. (Good gravy, we sure do sound like Pietists.) Phillipp Jakob Spener certainly had a profound influence on Wesley’s developing theology and, while I am indebted to these men for my own ever-developing theology, I try never to take anything to an extreme.

Which, by the way, is the reason for this post. I’m looking for balance, and for me it is a relentlessly shifting target.

My church is involved in a program we call “Transforming Congregations.” I won’t go into the why’s and wherefore’s and what an absurd practice in futility it has been, because complaining won’t change anything and it might get me into trouble. Suffice it to say that I am glad the process is about to come to an end. At any rate, Buckingham hosted (quite beautifully, I might add) the most recent, and I think final, gathering for our District. And Don Nations (of DNA Coaching who is leading the Transforming Congregations process) made a statement last night that I have been puzzling over since. He said that we should make it our mission (I assume he meant also “as Christian people”) to “do one good thing every day.”


I’m not even sure what that means.

He offered as an example a story about a time when he was appointed to serve a church that had been literally decimated by the former pastor who had decided to leave the denomination and take most of the church with him to seed his new nondenominational church, and Don was given the instructions to either save the “old” church or close it. He had 60 days to decide which one. Of course when he arrived, the limping remnant of the congregation immediately wanted to know if he had been sent to shut them down. He responded, “My job here is to do one good thing every day before 10:00.” (I know that’s a dangling participle or something. I didn’t write it; I’m just quoting it. I remember because he repeated this statement several times.) “And then if I have time, to do one more good thing.”

He enumerated some of the good things he did at that church: Went to the bank to negotiate a lower interest rate on existing debt; Convinced seven families to co-sign a loan to pay the bills; and…

Oh, wait…

I guess that was it.

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that was the extent of his examples of the good things he did “for the kingdom of God” at that church.


I kept my mouth shut, but it was only because I couldn’t think of a way to kindly question him. Also I was little dumbfounded.

See, I do a lot of stuff every day. Stuff that I consider to be part of “my job.” Stuff that isn’t really all that much fun and that I don’t think matters all that much in the big scheme of things, especially if we’re talking kingdom language. Some of it I would rather not do, but if I want to keep my job, make advances in my career, please the people who give money to the church that pays my salary, and make the church hierarchy smile, I do them. I attend endless meetings, negotiate rivers of paperwork, and instruct the insurance adjuster in the safest ways to climb up the roof to the steeple. I even buy and sell commercial real estate. I go to city council luncheons, write newsletter articles, and proofread the bulletin. I manage church staff, hire and fire people, and I am the place where the buck stops. Lots of my time is spent herding cats and putting out fires. Once in a while I take the time to consult a book on leadership or attend a conference to learn how to be better at all the things that are a part of “my job.”

In between all of that, or sometimes in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else stirs, or late into the night after everyone else has gone to bed, I do the things I consider to be a part of “my vocation,” or my “call.” Things like plan worship and write sermons and try to think theologically (although sometimes, I admit, I’m just too tired for that last part). And when I have time, or when I don’t have time but situations demand it, I actually pray with people, listen to their hearts, their hopes and dreams and hurts, build relationships, visit hospitals and homes, and do the things that might actually, in some miraculous, graced-by-God way, matter in God’s kingdom. And on those days, when I know for sure that God has been in the middle of the mess we call life, I go to bed without my jaw clinched tight and wondering if a glass of wine wouldn’t help me sleep a little better.

I try to spend time in prayer and spiritual disciplines regularly, to keep my own soul from withering, and so that I have some depth from which to draw the water that so many people ask of me. And I pray for those I love and for those who have been entrusted to my care. And I pray for wisdom and for guidance and for vision for God’s people.

I spend my life trying to do “one more good thing.” All too often I spend 10 or 12 or 14 hours at it. Partly because I wear pietist underwear, I’m never really sure how much is enough. And I’m not always sure what the good things are. And sometimes I get so caught up in the other things that the good things slip right by.


Is what I’m doing ever really good? I’m still not sure what that means. I’m not sure that anything I do matters or is making a difference. How am I supposed to measure that? Am I supposed to measure that? Maybe I’m just being way too uptight about it.

What do you think?

Ashes to Ashes

Someone asked me recently about the meaning of Ash Wednesday. “What is it?” they wanted to know. “Why do we it?” They said they had asked some Christian friends, and none of them knew the answer, either.

I love Ash Wednesday, and the whole season of Lent, in part because society hasn’t yet found a way to co-opt this tradition, filling it with sales at the mall or special music or jolly fat men in costumes. It seems the world isn’t quite sure what to do with a season filled with remembering our sin and mortality.

So, I’m pretty glad about the fact that no one wants to use this time of year for anything else. But mostly I like Lent because it calls me to a time of remembering who I am – and I am God’s, first and foremost, before I am a wife or mother, before I am a daughter or sister or aunt or friend, even before I am a pastor — I belong to God. It is God who breathed life into me and it is God who continues to sustain my life and who gives life to everything I do.

During Lent I take time to be more intentional about noticing God all around me, to slow down and return to some spiritual disciplines I may have neglected for a while, and to reflect on my own human weakness and vulnerability – something I often forget to do in the day to day of my busy life.

We say it belongs to teenagers, especially to our testosterone driven young males, but really it is human nature, I think, to assume a stance of immortality, to live as though there is no tomorrow, until time or tragedy forces us to remember that we are dust and to dust we will return.
That’s where the ashes come in – from the idea that we “are all from the dust, and all turn to dust again,” as the author of Ecclesiastes would remind us. And we mourn, sitting with Job in the ashes of his ruined dreams, acknowledging our dependence on our Maker.

The 40 days of Lent come from lots of different places in the Bible – 40 seems to be an important number – 40 years of wandering in the dessert during the Exodus, 40 days of rain, 40 days of the Israelites putting up with the threats of the Philistine giant Goliath before David knocked him down with a stone, and there are others — but we think most notably of Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the dessert.

He who was fully human was enticed by the deceiver, who promised an easy journey, a lifestyle of luxury, kingship without hardship, dominion over land and sea, if only Jesus would worship him.

But Jesus denied him.

And now, slowly… slowly… we walk with Jesus toward the cross; toward his death, and ultimately his resurrection. But – first – his death. We cannot get to the joy of Easter Sunday without the Good Friday cross.

People want to do lots of things during Lent – we promise to give up soft drinks or chocolate or fried foods, even facebook – for the sake of the journey to Easter. Or we determine to exercise more or eat our vegetables. And then we feel guilty in our failure or prideful in our success.

But the Lenten journey is not about willpower. It is not about punishing our bodies into submission. It is not a time to make resolutions that may improve our habits, however much they may need improving.

Lent is a time to remember and reflect on the goodness of God, and of God’s desire to have an intimate relationship with us. It is a time to perhaps cut out some of our more unhealthy habits, like watching too much television, and devote some of that time to prayer.

If you want to cut out your daily cappuccino, that’s fine; but to what good cause will you donate the money you save? Perhaps you can donate it to your local food pantry.

Be creative. If you want to exercise more frequently, invite an unchurched neighbor to join you on a morning walk, and maybe later for coffee at your home, and who knows but that she might end up on the pew next to you on Easter morning?

If you give up golf for 6 weeks, fine; but what about using that time to mentor an elementary school student? Or become a big brother or big sister.

Don’t just give up dessert. Make your favorite treats and take them to your local fire station. Pray for the safety of the men and women who serve as first responders as the aroma of the baking fills your house.

And whatever else you do, take some time this season to reflect on your humanity. Don’t be afraid of the word “sin.” Somehow as a culture we have decided that “sin” is an ugly word, and to admit sinfulness is to admit to heinous, shameful acts. But there is sin that isn’t murder or adultery.

Gossip is also a sin. As is slander. I think it is possible that more sin has been committed by the act of speaking than by every other sinful act combined!

Closing our eyes to the wounded and broken around us is also a sin. Knowing they are there and doing nothing about it is as much a sin as it would be if they asked you for a fish and you gave them a snake.

As good as we think we are, we are people deeply in need of the forgiveness and reconciliation of Christ.

I invite you into a Lenten journey that is reflective of God’s amazing love for you, and for the world around you. Find ways to celebrate that love and to share it with others.

A Dog’s Life

We have a dog. And by “we,” I mean my husband and my daughter and I. The dog’s name is Delilah, which is funny, considering my profession; but then, when I was in seminary one of my professors had a dog named Satan, so…

I didn’t actually name Delilah. My daughter did that. Delilah is a fuzzy, white, little bit of a thing, who weighs all of 10 pounds when she is dripping wet. A boyfriend gave this dog to my daughter when she was in college. You may have already figured out where this story is going.

Yes, that boy soon was no more, and it was time to bring on the next boy. But that boy was jealous of the first boy and of the dog my daughter clearly loved with all her heart, and he was unkind to Delilah, so Delilah came to live with me and my two Border Collies and my beautiful quarter horse and my fish. (The cat and the husband came along later.)

Of course Delilah bonded with my daughter first, and that bond remains strong, especially now that the second boy is also no more and my daughter has graduated from college and returned home to live with my husband and me, but we have also succumbed to Delilah’s charm and fallen madly in love with her. We dote on her and play fetch and feed her from the table even though we aren’t supposed to, and my husband takes her outside every time she sits at the door whining, wanting nothing more in life than to actually catch one of the squirrels who taunt her unmercifully.

My daughter works a lot, and she plays a lot, and she is not home very often. It is clear to me that Delilah misses her, even though she has the love of my husband and me to fill in the empty spaces. Especially at night, Delilah will lay in the hallway, close to our bedroom door, but where she can also watch the front door so that she won’t miss her momma if she comes home. When my daughter arrives, Delilah runs to her, jumping and licking and wagging with all the little-dog-love she can muster.  She sticks to my daughter as if she were glued to her.

We are all familiar with, if not directly then at least with the idea of, a dog’s unconditional love. A dog will love you through thick and thin, no matter how you treat it, no matter whether you send it to live with your parents, no matter that sometimes morning comes and the front door never opened…  A dog is loyal and loves you to the bitter end.

We get that. But have we considered the absolute, 100% TRUST a dog places in the one it loves? Every time Delilah runs to one of us, her little white tail is wagging. Her enthusiasm says what her little dog mouth cannot, “Yay! You’re home! I love you! And I know you love me back!!”

As imperfectly as we love her, Delilah always expects the best from us. I wonder what would happen if we human beings learned to trust God like that? If Delilah can believe in us, can’t we believe that the One we love, the God of the Universe, who loves us perfectly, will always have the best for us?

“If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?” (Matthew 7:9-11)

God is completely trustworthy. What if we learned to run to God like Delilah runs to us, believing that everything we will receive is good?

Channeling My Mother

I don’t really want to. Be my mother, I mean. It’s not that I don’t love my mother. It’s just that she’s so … how can I put this gently? … old. Not anciently old. In fact, she’s only 20 years older than me. But it seems that something happens to us when we reach a certain age. We grow cautious and don’t care for change and our faces get loose and jiggly. (Not necessarily in that order.) And I don’t want that to happen to me. I used to say that I wasn’t afraid of anything, but truth be told, I’m afraid of getting old. I talk a good game about how we should respect age and the wisdom that comes with it, and I frequently remind the older members of my congregation how much they still have to contribute to the church and to the world, but I don’t know that I really believe it. I don’t want to be old. I don’t want to lose control of my parts. Any of them. But more and more I find myself thinking and acting and looking like my mother. Who is this woman I am becoming? And who invited her to my party?