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Advent

Little Drummer Boy???

I know many people with very strong opinions about when you can and can’t play Christmas music. Most of the debate rages over “How early is too early?” Must one really wait until after Thanksgiving? Regardless of where you stand on that dilemma, most likely you stop listening to it on December 26, unless you are really into Christmas music. So, apologies if you’re appalled by a January 2nd posting. However, we still have four days in the twelve days of Christmas that lead up to Epiphany. (If you thought the 12 days of Christmas were a countdown of how many shopping days you have left, click the link and learn about the tradition of Christmastide.) This is still a season of adoring Jesus in a manger…

And, as the Inn starts, I have one more reflection as we gaze upon this child. Unfortunately, the reflection surrounds what is honestly one of my least favorite Christmas songs:

This is called the “perfect version,” so I had to share. I think this song usually just wears me out with the repetitive “Pa rum pa pum pum” -ness of it all. It’s almost as bad as fa la la la la la la la la la la la la la or whatever. But, I have to admit that something about the non drumbeat lyrics struck me upon a recent hearing of the song.

Little Drummer Boy (henceforth LDB) is not a song you will sing in church and it tells the story of a little boy’s journey to see the baby Jesus. To be clear, this is also not a story you read about in the Bible. The protagonist of the song, though, teaches us a valuable lesson that is mostly in these lines (drumbeats omitted):

I have no gift to bring,
That’s fit to give a King…
Shall I play for You,
On my drum?

Looking around, LDB must have seen the gifts the wise men brought and felt the same way you and I feel when we arrive at a party empty-handed when everyone else brought something for the host/hostess.

How often do you long to be faithful, long to approach Jesus — gaze upon Him — and yet feel unworthy to do so… What do *I* have to offer Jesus, after all? The answer we learn from this song, whether we like the tune of it or not, is simply this: whatever we have. Jesus is not asking You to bring something to the table you don’t have — in the case of LDB, he didn’t need to find some gold or myrrh to approach Jesus. In our case, we don’t have to be someone we’re not, comparing ourselves and our gifts to others. Instead, Jesus just asks us to bring what we have, with open hands, and to bless him with it.

Tomorrow night (1/3), we start a new series at the Inn, I Become, which centers on our transformation when we’re in relationship with Jesus. I hope this song is a reminder to us that the journey of transformation starts wherever we are, whoever we are now. The important action we must take is to bring ourselves to Jesus first.

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


Joy to the World!

I love the tradition of saving Joy to the World  for Christmas day. The hope is that Advent has been a season of preparing  Him room in our lives and we are now ready to receive Jesus as king – of the world and of our lives.

This is a song of celebration and rightfully so. God has intervened and through Jesus gives us triumph (not over having difficult times – we are promised we will have those) over hopelessness. The birth of Jesus is the “thrill of hope” and because of that, we can rejoice in our weariness.

Let’s celebrate with Whitney (video, above). The natural response to the revelation of how much God loves us is to sing with joy and continue to make room in our lives and hearts, so that He would be made king of both.

Lord,

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Amen

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


Silent Night

Sitting in a silent, dark room that is lit only by the white lights of a Christmas tree, I am reminded that tonight the waiting is over…

The hoped-for arrival of someone to ransom us from captivity has materialized in Jesus. One of the great gifts Jesus gives us is peace – in the midst of messy relationships, loneliness, chaos, illness, and even death, we can have peace.

This peace on the night Jesus is born comes not from having perfect lives, or really even the hope for a perfect life. It comes from having hope that even in the midst of darkness, there is Someone bigger than the darkness.

How often are we silent and still? If you’re like me, the answer is, “Not often enough.” But the reminder of Psalm 46:10 rings true: “Be still and know that I am God.” In our own stillness, we sense our smallness and we sense God’s vastness. From that perspective, we can see our need — and we can begin to understand the mystery of God’s meeting that need in the birth of Jesus.

Let’s allow ourselves on this night to be still and silent before a huge, almighty, powerful God — who in that power became a helpless baby. Of course, the irony is that true silence requires no song at all. True silence requires turning off the music, the TV, the computer (after you finish reading this blog, of course). Since turning off a racing mind is near impossible, simply bring your thoughts to Jesus, asking him to give you perspective, even on those thoughts.

Lord,
Quiet our hearts, that on this silent night, we might hear Your voice… That we might be given perspective – of who You are and who we are. Wherever we find ourselves this year at Christmas, give us  Your hope and Your peace. We want to rejoice in Your coming, but we know the importance of being still… Of ceasing our striving… Of taking deep breaths… Because we cannot rejoice in Your coming until we are acquainted with our own emptiness and also with Your ability to fill that void. Quiet our hearts, Lord.

Amen

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


O Little Town of Bethlehem

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 
for out of you will come a ruler 
   who will shepherd my people Israel. 

–Matthew 2:1-6

It’s easy for me to think of Jesus’ birth as a nice story. Or to get lost in the theology of the Incarnation and all of its implications. But the times when I am most in the Christmas spirit — when I come the closest to “getting it” — are the times when I think about the reality and the messiness of it all.

I love the context scripture is always giving us… Even the pages and pages of genealogies ground me in reality when I read the Bible. Not because I think it’s important to know Salathiel was the father of Zerubbabel, but because remembering these are real stories about real people impresses on me implications for my faith today.

The marker at the Church of the Nativity, which has been built around the location where many believe Jesus was born.

Bethlehem is a real place. Five years ago, I was privileged to visit Israel and spend time in Bethlehem. Honestly, I was not awed by the Church of the Nativity that has a marker of the exact location Jesus is believed to have been born. I was not inspired to touch that place because it had some kind of magical power. In fact, it was the lack of “magic” I felt in walking the streets of Bethlehem that awed me. It was the sheer ordinary nature of the town that moved me when I realized it was the place of Jesus’ birth.

God came to a real place and real people. The song O Little Town of Bethlehem is a reminder to me of that. Knowing that Jesus came in real time and space is just what I need to experience the wonder of this season of waiting.

If I hear the story of Jesus’ birth and don’t stop to think about the real place he came into — the night air, the sounds of the cars rushing by (just seeing if you’re still reading)… the sounds of the sheep nearby, the stars, the clouds, the hay… then I run the risk of turning Jesus’ birth into a nice story. It is that – but it is so much more; it is a life-changing story. When I imagine the real place of Bethlehem and put myself in the streets of that normal town, I am given the gift of the story coming alive, with the hope that it truly would transform my everyday life here in this real town.

Lord,
Thank You for visiting us in flesh and not just in theory. Thank you for entering into our pain instead of observing from afar.
Help us to enter in to Your story, that we might be reminded of Your power that came to us in weakness.
Amen

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


The Magnificat

Does God notice us? In the grand scheme of the world, do our lives even matter? What do we do when we find everything in our life seems to be on shaky ground?

Like the past couple of posts, this one focuses on a Christmas song… Only we don’t know the tune, so we can’t sing along and I can’t post a YouTube of it. The song is known on some playlists as The Magnificat and it belongs to Mary. She writes it after her world is turned upside-down; an angel has just told her she will give birth to the son of God. She is an unwed virgin; what will people think? Elizabeth, who also finds herself unexpectedly pregnant credits Mary’s faith and Mary’s response is poetic.

46And Mary said:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
-Luke 1

He has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” God notices us.

Sometimes, reflecting on one’s own life feels so… selfish. So narcissistic. And don’t get me wrong, in this age of updating facebook statuses and seeking to get noticed not just on campus but on twitter, narcissism has never been easier to attain. But I admit that lately I’ve been thinking about my own life a lot and sometimes I wonder where the line of navel-gazing is. When does introspection become unhealthy for the introspector and those in his or her life? I think a recent sermon by Dave Rohrer (12/4/11) provided some clarity on this point.

As Dave dissected the Magnificat, he pointed out that God notices. The details of our lives are important to God and worthy of thought and effort. This is Psalm 8: “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” God is paying attention. At the same time, God is issuing us an invitation to be part of the greater story — God’s story. Mary goes on to say, “The Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is His name.” She sings of God’s mercy to her. She tells the story of what he has done in previous generations and finishes with God’s mercy that extends from Abraham to … Mary herself. She realizes she is part of something bigger. God has invited her to His story.

I think this is the key for us when we find ourselves in deep introspection, contemplating our own lives. The impetus behind it ought to be a desire to see how our lives fit into God’s story. So that when we focus on our own pain and struggles, we might hope in God — that He can heal and redeem and restore. Of course, this redemption doesn’t always happen in our timing, but the idea is that we can see our struggles in the light of God’s hope. When we ask if God is even noticing, we can be reminded that not only has He noticed us, but He has entered in to our struggle through the very birth of Jesus.

Advent (and the Magnificat in particular) are invitations — reminders to keep watching, waiting, looking for what God is doing. Which means I can lament the past and the pain in my life, but I can also rejoice that God not only notices and cares about the pain, but wants to heal and redeem, bringing the hope I need that my story — an important story — is one small part of something much bigger God is doing in the world.

Lord,
You are mindful of our state. Right now.
Help us to value our story and the details of our lives the same way You do, but to write that story in the bigger context of Your Word & Your story.
Amen

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


O Come All Ye Faithful

I’ve recently been reminded (and, quite honestly, wonder-struck) by the moment-to-moment nature of relationship, including the relationship into which God has invited us with Himself. Faithfulness is an action verb, and a choice we make continually – not just once. An oft-heard comparison of our relationship with God is the marriage analogy because it is another covenant relationship, wherein each person has a choice to make. In a sermon I heard recently (11/20/11), former pastor at UPC, Bruce Larson was quoted as saying, “Nobody gets married by saying, ‘I agree.’ Or ‘How true.'” Instead, it requires, “I do.” Covenant relationship is a choice and an action, not a mental ascension.


Christmas carols and hymns are one of the gifts of Advent. Yearly audible reminders of the season. Until recently, though, I have struggled a bit with one of the mainstays of December, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” That is because when I start to sing that song – which opens with the title line – I ask myself, “Is that me? Am I faithful? Am I faithful enough to even sing this song?” The answer is without fail, “Sometimes,” which can make me feel unworthy to be singing a song about faithfulness. But, I’ve started to change my perspective on this song recently. Instead of seeing it as an invitation to the faithful, I now sing and hear it as an invitation to be faithful. It’s not a call to the most pious among us to take their  rightful place next to the God incarnate. It’s an invitation to all of us to be faithful by simply coming, beholding, adoring, God – who came to us as a baby.

It’s what I like to call the present progressive nature of faith. Present progressive is a verb tense that – much like its name indicates – indicates action now. “I am writing” means something altogether different from “I write.” The former requires intentionality in the present moment that the latter does not. I see “O Come All Ye Faithful” in a similar vein. Regardless of my past faithfulness, I can right now choose to look for God. The actions the song invites us into — behold, adore, come, sing, greet, give glory — are actions that invite us to simply gaze upon the wonder of the gift God gave us in Jesus. Those actions are in and of themselves acts of faithfulness.

Let’s commit ourselves to faithfulness today, looking for what God is doing all around us. Praise God because in this covenant relationship, He has already chosen us and now the choice is ours; whether we have been faithful most of our life or we have never chosen to behold God before, the invitation is there.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, 
   and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. Luke 2:8-20

Lord,
Like the shepherds, help us to seek You today.
Help us to gaze upon You – who You are and what You have done in our lives & then to join the angels praising You.
With Mary, we want to ponder the wonder of who You are in our hearts, allowing it to transform who we are.

Allow us to be faithful today to You, who are faithful always.
Remind us of Your presence with us, that we might be faithful to simply behold You.
Give us the courage to say, “I do,” now and in each moment.
Amen.

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


O Come, O Come Emmanuel

When I think about waiting, what usually comes to mind is the woman at the end of the Mervyn’s ad. “Open, open, open…” I can’t think about anything else! And I suppose, that is kind of the point when we talk about Advent being a season of waiting. When we anticipate something happening, we tend to see everything through a lens of waiting for the big moment. Of course, this can cause us problems when it comes to failing to live in the present… (How often have you said this year, “If I can only get to the weekend?”) But this is not a post about that. This is about waiting for something someone who has already come; which means even as we anticipate His coming, we can experience it today as well.

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).” -Isaiah 7:14

This time of year, Christmas music is ubiquitous. One of my favorite songs of the season is O Come, O Come Emmanuel, because it sums up the experience of Advent — the waiting, the watching, the anticipating on the front end, but also a reminder of who we are waiting for: Emmanuel. God is with us. This means we are anticipating a miracle — a miracle that will ransom us. Think about that word for a minute. Ransom is paid to gain the release of someone who is imprisoned. In order to appreciate the miracle of Christmas, we have to recognize our state on our own. Without Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, we are prisoners. We are captive to our own sin and the sin of the world, but God comes to be with us — to “put on skin,” that we might be set free.

6 “I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; 
   I will take hold of your hand. 
I will keep you and will make you 
   to be a covenant for the people 
   and a light for the Gentiles, 
7 to open eyes that are blind, 
   to free captives from prison 
   and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.” Isaiah 42:6-7

As we live into Advent, let’s remember not only Who we wait for – God With Us – but our need for His coming. The sin in us and in the world doesn’t cease to exist upon Jesus’ arrival, but we are no longer captive to it. This is why we rejoice in Emmanuel. God is with us now – even while we wait for Christmas to come and even while we wait for Him to come again.

Lord,
Keep our eyes open and show us how You are with us, even in our messy lives. As we study for finals, interact with friends and family, travel, and wait… Remind us of Your presence behind, before, and beside us in each activity. Thank You for Your Spirit that goes with us today, and thank You for Your son, who came that we may be able to choose abundant life in relationship with You.
Amen.

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant


Anticipating that Which has Already Come…

ad·vent/ˈadˌvent/

Noun:
  1. The arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.
  2. The first season of the church year, leading up to Christmas and including the four preceding Sundays.

If I had looked up the word, “Advent” as a child, I probably would have expected to see “a type of calendar that counts down to Christmas (AKA gift time!)” … But now, the season that precedes Christmas is more than a type of calendar to me. It is a time of waiting, watching, hoping, and anticipating God coming to earth in human skin.

It’s funny to anticipate something you know is coming because it really has already come. And yet we can’t wait to see it happen again.  The cyclical nature of the calendar – the very idea that we celebrate the same holiday and season every ~365.25 days is a gift of grace.

I need the reminder. Anything I’m told once, or learn once, I forget. But if there is something to bring it to mind a few times subsequently, it begins to nestle its way into my brain. In fact, there are a few things in there I do not think I could get out if I wanted to and tried. Unfortunately, one of those things is too many digits of pi. 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939 are woven in there tightly because of a challenge in high school. (At least I am assured of always being able to calculate the circumference of a circle… So there’s that.) Fortunately, also lodged in my mind is the first passage of scripture I ever memorized, Psalm 4. Sometimes when I am trying to recall something completely unrelated – my grocery needs for example – what pops into my brain instead is, “Answer me when I call to You, oh my righteous God.” I don’t know why it’s stored in the same part of the brain as the recipe I need to remember, but it’s there, ready when I need it. Regardless of what it is – useless trivia or scripture, sports statistics or your friends’ favorite colors – most of us only remember something when we are able to put that which we remember to use multiple times, whether in our own minds or socially.

Advent is a gift. It comes around every year and it stays for 4 weeks, reminding us: We are waiting for something. We are incomplete. But fulfillment is coming. Let’s incline our ears to hear and prepare our eyes to see where God already is working in our world, that we might know our need for Jesus to come and understand the gift we were given in His coming.

We’ll be using this space for the next 2 weeks to reflect on Advent – not as a countdown to Christmas, but as a season to celebrate in and of itself… We invite you to read and reflect on what it means to wait for something and anticipate a gift which You already know is coming. How is this annual reminder of the gift God has already given a gift to you?

Becky R, UMin Executive Assistant