Monday Muse: The True Meaning of Advent

A bumper sticker with a prominent nativity image proclaims, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” raising its witness to a Good News that isn’t contingent upon wreaths and light displays and holiday sales. Yet even “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and “Keep the Christ in Christmas” campaigns draw our focus toward Christmas, effectively bypassing the liturgical season of Advent.

The reason for the Advent season is not Baby Jesus sleeping quietly in a manger with Mary and Joseph looking demure and composed despite the hell they’ve just endured. The reason for the Advent season is precisely all of the messiness that we gloss over at Christmas: it is the world’s longing for reprieve and reconciliation, it is the hopeful agony of waiting for something new, it is the bitter reality that Christ is not yet fully manifest among us. (If I had my druthers, Advent would begin on All Saints Day at the start of November — not to assuage my guilt for loving the post-Halloween rush of decorations and lights and music — but to allow us all more time to wrestle with this holy season of longing.)

The mystery of Advent is difficult to comprehend let alone to practice, let alone to practice with “Jingle Bells” playing and Santa Clause waving in every mall in America. But to simultaneously rejoice in what is coming, while stamping our feet impatiently that it is not yet here… To open our eyes wide to the world’s pain, and open our hearts wide to the impossibilities that may bloom in such a wasteland… To recognize the angst within and around us for healing, and to respond to ourselves and to one another as though the scares are already faded… This is the true meaning of Advent.

But even when we understand its meaning, Advent is not the simplest of liturgical seasons to teach to children. In many churches, kids’ primary experience of Advent is the time spent practicing for the Christmas pageant … which is great fun, but not instructive about Advent itself.

Advent StorybookOne lovely book captures Advent’s mysteries, its call for attentiveness to the world around us, and its longing for Christ: Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas.

Advent Storybook is a collection of adventurous tales told by Mother Bear to Benjamin Bear each night during Advent, about a little bear who tries to follow a star on its journey across the sky, encountering strangers along the way, receiving unexpected gifts, learning grace and hospitality with each adventure. “A rose blooming in winter! That must have been wonderful to see,” said Benjamin. Mother Bear nodded. “Always remember,” she said, “God’s love can warm and brighten the coldest, darkest night.”

Although several tales conclude with a moral that borders on cliche, as a whole, this is an adorable book that’s surprisingly inclusive and quietly justice-minded. The little bear of Mother Bear’s tales meets Santa Claus as well as a (Buddhist?) monk, sees visions, talks to a king, and walks with a blind man. “God welcomes everyone — rich and poor, kings and little lambs alike.” In Mother Bear’s tales, we learn how to live in Advent rather than just waiting for the days to pass until Christmas.

advent storybook 2I’ve used the stories from Advent Storybook during the weekly children’s moment in worship for each Sunday in Advent. It’s also a beautiful book to read day-by-day with your children, grandchildren, nieces & nephews … or just to yourself, over a cup of hot chocolate before bed, to remind you that joy and dreaming are part of Advent too.

Advent Storybook: 24 Stories to Share Before Christmas
Antonie Schneider. Maja Dusikova, illustrator.
English translation by Marisa Miller.
North-South Books, Inc. (New York 2004)

Sunday Prayer

Breathtaking God, Ever-Gracious God,
you who call new worlds into being,
you who make peace between the wolf and the lamb:
You are wonderful … and you leave us wondering.

O LORD, hear our prayer.

We experience you in contradictions.
You are the wild hope of our dreams,
and you are the restless agony of our souls.
You accept the praises of floods and storms,
yet you hover in love over places of devastation.
You command us to love our neighbors
but warn us to hate the world.

For the complexity that is yours,
for the contradictions with which we wrestle:
O LORD, hear our prayer.

For the complexities that are ours,
for the difficulties in life that we blame on you:
O LORD, hear our prayer.

We look to you for guidance through all that is perplexing,
and as we breathe together in this moment of prayer,
we pray for the patience and the wisdom
to wait (to wonder) without answers.
O LORD, hear our prayer.

We are amazed by what you accomplish
with us and within us. Most of all,
we are amazed that you do not leave us.
We are humbled and grateful for your unfailing grace.

With the prophet Isaiah and with our teacher Jesus,
with the whole host of witnesses across scripture,
we claim in prayer and thanksgiving:
the mystery is yours
and all that is in it.
Therefore, we trust you
in all that we do not know or understand,
and we join you in the working out
of healing, of justice, of peace
beyond imagination.

O LORD, this is our prayer. Amen.

This prayer is cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.

Unwilling to Work (reworked)

Dear friends, prayer-writers, and sermonizers:

The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday include Second Thessalonians 3:6-13, which says in summary:

When we were with you…with toil and labor
we worked night and day so that we might not
burden any of you. For even when we were with you,
we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling
to work should not eat. (NRSV)

We’ve heard a similar message repeated in political debates over unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other so-called “entitlement” programs coordinated by our state and federal governments. It’s hard for me to hear 2 Thessalonians 3 without also hearing the condemning tone of those persons (not just politicians!) who view poverty as an indication of character flaw or idleness.

But! When we marry this passage with the whole of scripture (including Sunday’s gospel text of Luke 21:5-19, in which Jesus warns listeners against trusting their security to institutions and popularity, preceded in verses 1-4 with Jesus’ acclamation of the widow’s meager offering) … when we place “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” within the context of the Bible’s good news that God has a soft spot for those who are hungry and poor … then 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 takes on a decidedly different tone!

When we spent time with you and got to know
the joys & stresses of your lives, we saw that life
is not always easy for you. Therefore we worked
even though we had plenty, because it would not be
fair for you — amidst your struggles — to give up
 your daily bread in order for us to feast. And we did not
spend our days pointing out your flaws or scolding
your lifestyles, but instead worked in solidarity with you
to ease the pressures that build up against you.
Learn from us: do not ask others to sacrifice
 their very lives and health so that you can
live comfortably in the status quo (and more!).
Our work — like our faith — is not meant
for personal comfort & gain, but for
the well-being of all people.
Therefore, do not be unwilling to work
in such a way that others are blessed.

I invite us to bring new ears to Second Thessalonians 3, and to set aside the judgment that we hear and the judgment that we may hold ourselves. Take pen and paper, and write a prayer for those who are out of work and those who are out of food. Then find a way to invest your time, your work and your spirit in the efforts to relieve hunger and poverty.

Blessings and peace,
Rachel

Monday Muse: Dancing on the Mountain

For those who love to worship God with voices and hands raised, stirred by contemporary rhythms and sentimental lyrics … who also love and hold fast to the theology of a gracious, inclusive God made known to us in the boundary-breaking life of Jesus … finding praise & worship music that does not offend one’s theology is very difficult.

Enter Dancing on the Mountain, by pastor and musician Rob Leveridge!

Leveridge’s album of thirteen songs for community worship is an exciting sign of hope that Contemporary Christian Music is not necessarily wed to conservative theology. But more than that: Dancing on the Mountain is a gift to congregations regardless of theological position. With songs like “In Your Eyes” and “No Matter What,” Leveridge’s music shares the Spirit of hospitality with all people and worshiping communities.

No matter who we are,
where we’re from,
what we’ve seen,
how we look,
how we speak,
what we earn,
how we love,
we are yours…
(“In Your Eyes”)

Each of the thirteen songs inspires possibilities for worship. “Resurrection Song,” for example, can be incorporated into the reading of scripture; “Taste and See” offers reflection for Communion as well as for a Thanksgiving service; and each song on the album can be sung in full or its chorus excerpted for repetition. In addition, how-to essays in the songbook (which includes music for piano, voice and guitar) provide practical guidance and encouragement for writing and teaching new worship songs.

The recordings on Dancing on the Mountain are exceptional, with full praise band sound and harmonies, and the occasional surprise of children’s voices! (The latter makes “Do a Great Work in Me” a quick favorite of mine.) Dancing on the Mountain is an uplifting worship resource, clearly made with joy, for the inspiration of the Church everywhere!

Dancing on the Mountain is available for purchase
as a CD, a songbook and also via download through
robleveridge.com. I was pleased to write an introductory
essay on prayer and poetry for the album’s songbook.

Sunday Prayer

There are souls crying out to you, O God,
and our hearts in prayer join their chorus:

For consolation amidst great devastation.
+ We pray for the demolition and the heartbreak
left in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
+ We sigh in the knowledge of pandemic hunger
and the social hypocrisy of holiday extravagances.
+ We weep for the fear and arrogance that drive wars,
including our personal wars against one another.

For solace amidst stresses that threaten to break us.
+ We pray over relationships that seem beyond repair,
including a few that need ending and others that need hope.
+ We look to you for guidance through changing seasons
in our places of work, in our homes, in this modern world.
+ We dare to pray about money: the very real need for it
but also the temptations of it, for each of us and for our church.

For gratitude to enliven our work and provoke our faith.
+ Because you are God, the Faithful One, the Redeemer
who lives and who loves even beyond the end of time.
+ Because you have sustained generations before us
and we have witnessed your work within our own lives.
+ Because you are not finished being God, not now,
not ever, and you continue to reach out to save us all.

Hear, O God, the swelling chorus of hearts in prayer.
Be satisfied to be with us always, we pray. Amen.

(This prayer is cross-posted at RevGalBlogPals.)