Christmas Eve Service

Watch Reservoir’s Christmas Eve Service featuring a message from Senior Pastor, Steve Watson.

Counting Joy

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Good morning everyone! As always it is a pleasure to be with you today.

We are in the season of Advent, a season of waiting and longing – for the coming of Jesus and all that it meant, and still means for us and the world around us today.

It’s also the season that at least here in the Northeast, signals that we are walking into the darkest part of the year. This Tuesday in fact, will mark the beginning of the Winter Solstice – and it will be the shortest day of the year – with the sun setting at 4:15pm. (uuuugh)  You better believe I’m counting the days until that sunset tips past 5:00pm again! (46!)

These dimming days are a reminder to me though that most miracles, rest, and birth happen in the long nights – the darkness of the womb.  Advent is to in tandem look for the light – as much as it is to be acquainted with the darkness.   bell hooks, this pathbreaking black feminist who died this week says along these lines –

To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending.

The filters of both light and dark are part of our faith journeys…

To love,  feel joy,  wonder,  experience peace – and these fundamentals undergird our faith – and require us to embrace the vulnerability of being human – to leave ourselves and our hearts open.

So today we are going to check in with our hearts – maybe see if there are doors that are shut by choice or numbed by “too much.” And yet we are going to press into the story of Mary (and see if there is something in there that will open our hearts) prepare “our hearts room” – for Jesus and what unexpected things might be born in us. Even if joy feels like a vapor right now…even if you are done counting the days, moments, months – until something changes – feels lighter/gets lighter.

Today as we enter into the story of Jesus’ birth (primarily through the story of Mary) – we’ll find many many strands of darkness and light – and see how both are counted as joy.  How joy abides by no clean, defined or perfect parameters – but if found in the imperfect partnership of humanity and the Divine. It’s a big story – born in  “tiny” places – like fields, and a house in Nazareth, in a manger, in the hills. And it’s a messy story given shape by bodies and wombs -blood and sweat, hearts – leaping and singing. Intersecting with curious characters – like lowly shepherds, astrologers, teenagers and…women.

And…us…God comes to the edge of God’s own divinity and knocks on our human hearts and says,

“May I come in?” “May I partner with you?”

to disrupt the ordinary, and turn this world upside down… and GOD asks us this in the shadows of pandemic – as much as GOD does the longest, sunniest days of the year.

Advent allows us to revisit these questions God anew… the seriousness, the power, and the joy of them.

How does partnering with Jesus resonate with you this morning? Do you count it as joy?

As a warm-up to some of those questions – we will enter the story of Mary today, particularly through her song, called the Magnificat and perhaps you’ll find yourself pondering joy in your own heart as we do.

Prayer – Open Unto Me (Remix)
Oh God, the one who comes to open our hearts.

Open unto us this morning.

Open unto us the story of Mary, her song, her love, her power.

Open unto us our story, our song, our love and our power.

And may you unfold the gifts of your presence, your mystery and JOY to us today.

I decided that this winter is going to be the winter that I start to love the cold and the encroaching darkness (if any of you know me – actually you don’t even need to know me – to know that this is a wild statement). But to double down on this goal of mine – I’ve started taking night walks…

Sometimes I go with a neighbor, sometimes my husband – sometimes (one time) a kid (if they want to push bedtime).

And I don’t have any idea if it’s making me love the cold / darkness more –  but I do reflect on my day – the week.

And I find myself counting – strangely a lot of things – my breath as I walk.

But also things that are live in conversation, at the front of my mind – and things I notice

  • Tallying the number of Covid cases that I’ve heard about
  • How many lights automatically come on – as I walk through this one section
  • How many variants and states that have the variant there now?
  • The stars that are visible
  • Counting how many rapid tests we’ll need in the house for swim meets and urban nutcracker shows… that are required of my kids
  • The hoots of an owl on the top of a post
  • Counting the cars that drive by at excessive speed – and counting my rising pulse…

I count so many things …

It maybe not so surprising that I was drawn to a particular piece of art in the Dome Gallery. This month we’re highlighting community art that was made for Advent. This week’s art is by Vernee Wilkinson.

And this was one of the first to go up – way before Thanksgiving.  I was here late one Sunday and  stood in front of it – before Vernee had added any artist statement or title – or scripture.

I’ll give you a moment to take it in too.

Drawn to the color, and the symmetry of all of these same, cut out circles…one after one after another…

It’s funny – because this art is entitled, “And Counting…”

And it’s a tally – through these little circle cutouts – of the many things we might have felt piling up over the last 21 months – even if we have not consciously been counting them…

Vernee lists…categories for these tallies and marks:

  • Days at home
  • Hours of worry
  • Lives lost
  • Connections missed
  • Zoom clicks…

And then she leaves spaces and blanks for more categories to be filled out…as if she is inviting us the viewers to engage with that…

And so we shall…

Tally all the things, people, places, songs, etc..  you love right now.

And now, of those things, people, places that you love – tally the ones that also touch grief/fear/pain/worry.

Ok – we’ll re-engage with this in just a moment – so hold on to it…

As we enter the story of Mary – I’d love for you to hold those two prompts at the forefront of your mind as you think of Mary.

What are the things she loves…and of those things – what touches grief/fear/pain/worry…

Let’s listen to Mary – her feminine voice that begins the Jesus story…and read along the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament.

The scripture is from Luke 1, on the slides:

I’ll pause a little bit as we make our way through the whole story, adding some commentary and then jumping back into scripture a little bit –  but we’ll enter here – where the angel has appeared to Mary – and we learn a bit about their conversation.

Luke 1:28, 35-38, 46-55

28 Upon arriving, the angel said to Mary, “Rejoice, highly favored one! God is with you! Blessed are you among women!”

Rejoice! I have a message of “Joy” for you…. Are you ready for it?! 

Mary: “what kind of joy is this?”

But this is the entrance the angel makes – and we have a few verses of back and forth with the Angel and Mary – where we kind of get the sense that Mary’s top emotion is not immediate joy.

The scripture says that she’s confused and TROUBLED at the greeting of this angel?
And wondering what the angel is actually saying?

And the angel of course goes on with “angel-like” things to say such as “fear not!”

you will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus.

32 He will be great  –  the Son of the Most High.  He’ll rule forever and ever, and there will be no end to his kin-dom.”


Mary though still is not effervescent with joy – and moves to practical questions like how

HOW will this happen? – “I haven’t had any sexual relations.” (and then we pick up the scripture on the slides again):

35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you – hence the offspring to be born will be called the Holy One of God.

38 Mary said, “I am the servant of God. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

Then the angel left her.

So let’s stop here for a minute:

After all of this back and forth between the angel and Mary – Mary trying to take in all of this wild, and absurd message that’s coming to her, we hear her say this pivotal thing – I think – in this last verse,

“Let it be.”  “Let it be with me just as you have said.”

“Ok – yes.”

“Yes, God.”

“I’m not bubbling with ‘JOY’ right now – but I will “OPEN” unto you nevertheless.”

You see, Mary’s “let it be”, is the move that opens the door to change everything.- This opening – is the crack where God implants God’s self .  God’s divinity and LOVE takes up residence in our human hearts (mysteriously, unexplainably) and gives us the seeds to birth something impossible…love in the midst of suffering. Hope in the face of horror… Joy when there is no obvious reason to laugh…

Mary’s reality is somewhat akin to our reality too, – hers is not a blissful, copacetic existence. She is disadvantaged in a world that would neither notice nor protect her.  Women and babies – were definitely not at the top of the societal power structure.

She lived in  the time of Herod the Great – full of terror

“innocents were being killed”.

A census was devised to document the undocumented for governmental control. And there were burdensome taxes that cost the poor their land – and left the masses impoverished. People were hungry, shelter was scarce and people lived in fear for their lives and their children’s lives.

Mary could count endlessly the things that were against her, a threat to her and just hard.

This does not seem the basis or groundwork of “joy.”

Howard Thurman the late theologian, civil rights leader, mystic – says that

“Joy is of many kinds. Sometimes joy comes silently, opening all the closed doors and making itself at home in our desolate hearts. Joy (he says), has no forerunner, save itself. It brings its own welcome and its own salutation. Sometimes, joy is compounded of many elements– a touch of sadness, a whimper of pain, a harsh word tenderly held until all its arrogance dies.”

And this is the interesting thing about joy. It does not mean that a person hasn’t had a broken heart.  It does not mean that a person has not suffered – but, it does mean that one has been able to discover that joy and sorrow or joy and pain are two sides of a single coin.

This is Mary’s joy – a joy of many kinds.  The kind that counts horror, pain and injustice. The kind that is birthed within her, intrinsic to her being. The kind that becomes not only a source of strength and the fuel for resilience and change – but a political act in and of itself.  The CHANGE that she inspires – and spearheads…The kind of joy that she delivers to the world around her…is done not by violence or by weapon – but by song.

Mary (after receiving the message of the angel) goes and visits her older cousin, Elizabeth who is also miraculously expecting a child, after decades of barrenness.  And Mary starts to sing, as she and Elizabeth connect… and here’s her song:

46 Mary said, “my soul proclaims your greatness, O God,

47 and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.

48 For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant, and from this day forward all generations will call me blessed.

49 For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.

50 Your mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear you.

So let me pause here for a second.

The beginning of this song –  is a song for all of us… and especially for those who like Mary – are discounted by society, pushed to the edges, INVISIBLE. It’s a song for when we think God has forgotten just how long we’ve been waiting and longing! It’s a song that invites us to join in the ancient chorus – that God’s promise is to be with us forever, that God loves us forever, that God will never leave, or forsake us. That we will not be alone.

And maybe Mary knows this truth because she too counted… counted and collected gratitude love along the way. Love for her kinswoman Elizabeth.. someone she could count tears with? Deep sighs with…count the days, the months of impossible pregnancy.

And count the footsteps of Herod’s men as they came to each door – or the counting of coins she didn’t have enough of for taxes or bread. Maybe she counted the stars and the generations of women who sung before her –  Deborah, Miriam, Hannah who sang of their own struggles and God’s love – a song –  breathed into Mary’s DNA…. lining the depths of who Mary was….

Maybe this is how she could say,

and in those depths – ‘the depths of who I am…that’s where the joy is…. I rejoice in God my savior.”

JOY is the gift of knowing God’s deep LOVE and presence.

Vernee’s artwork commands this same truth, it says on her artist statement,

“and still they remain”

– “they” referring to God,

“and still they remain”

in all the tallies in all the hash marks – STILL GOD REMAINS.

And from here … Mary’s “power and willingness to disrupt, intervene and invert the world” takes off…and we hear this as her song continues:

51 You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in their conceit;

52 You have deposed the mighty from their thrones

and raised the lowly to high places.

53 You have filled the hungry with good things,

while you have sent the rich away empty.

54 You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,

mindful of your mercy –

55 the promise you made to our ancestors –

to Sarah and Abraham

and their descendants forever.”

This is not a soft, dreamy, sentimental- Mary song.  This is a revolutionary, a wild, vehement protest song! IT is in direct contrast to the Empire and powers of the day.. And it is laying out Jesus’ kin-dom and ministry to come.

 Priest Barbara Brown Taylor says, this

was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time—not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true. She says, prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it.”

Mary is a prophet.

And some days this is all we can do, to keep trying to see the world as God sees it – even if our reality defies it at every turn. Even if the powerful are still on their thrones, and have their hands full of riches – and even as the poor and powerless are still in the trenches – hungry and suffering. And the ones we love most are still suffering. Some days all we have is the mystery and promises of God’s love and presence – that reside deep within us to count as joy.

We might not have the overall vaccine percentages that allow us to move around as we once did – yet, or the return to bagels & coffee in our Sunday services, or the justice we want to see rise up in our structures and institutions…

Mary too, doesn’t have the things that would make this an easier go of it for her…Barbara Taylor says,

“she doesn’t have a sonogram, or a husband, or an affidavit from the Holy Spirit that says, “The child really is mine. Now leave the poor girl alone.” All she has is her willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next, that God will remain —and this apparently, is enough to birth joy and to make her burst into song.”

and to give her wisdom and focus on where it is her work will be to come.

She does not wait to see how things will turn out first, she prepares her heart room for God no matter what the outcome.. She counts it all as joy. Thousands of hundreds of little unknown pieces of life – still to float into her purview – pain and sorrow – laughter and love – but alll joy.

Mary’s song – has been controversial throughout time. It has enlivened prophetic imaginations…beyond the walls of the church, into the real lives of people…..and it also has threatened and enraged the powerful elite.

During British colonial rule of India, Mary’s song was banned.  The British East India company prohibited this song as part of any church liturgy.  Finally, when British rule was over, Gandhi asked that the Magnificat be recited at each site where English flags came down.

In Argentina, in the 1970’s the mothers of people who disappeared organized protests at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires with the Magnificat written on their protest signs.

The military (hoo)-nta (Junta)  in response…banned the Magnificat.

In the 1980’s when hundreds of thousands of citizens were disappearing in Guatemala, the government banned Mary’s song –  nine verses from the Bible –  because it was considered politically dangerous, subversive, revolutionary.

Oscar Romero, a martyr, priest and saint –  whose ministry was distinguished by his particular attention to the most poor and marginalized – prayed Mary’s song every day of his priestly life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and one who fought against and yet was executed by the Nazi’s – called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

And white evangelicals have devalued the role of Mary, her song, her voice, her message (her gender) – to the point that she’s nearly been erased.

You see – those who impale others as a way of shirring up their authority and power – are threatened by those,  (like Mary), who enwomb the treasures of faith – of JOY. Because they can not be conquered, claimed or secured by might…but if given room, in a heart that has been prepared and opened, by voices and song, and history and the promises of God, our hearts will prove to make way for the story of a tiny baby to rule and overturn the world by love.

AND JOY COUNTS in this world…Mary teaches this tiny baby Jesus – about God – through joy, through her song. Jesus first heard this song in the womb, his ear already tuning to this melody. And maybe it was the song sung throughout their home while Jesus, as a toddler, scurried under Mary’s foot …perhaps it was the lullaby she sang to him each night. And maybe this song, was the clarion call that Mary sang through the streets when Jesus went missing for three days in the temple.

Maybe it was the song that inspired his first words of his public ministry to be,

Luke 4:18-19 “The Spirit of the Lord  has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed.”

Maybe it was the ravaged, sobbing song he heard his mom sing – or the one he hummed himself – as he died on the cross… It is a song he heard again and again throughout his life.

Mother Mary’s song continues to be sung to us this Advent, and beyond. It is a daily song that we get to make our own. With old lyrics and with new lyrics ….of our longings, our protests, and our bodies.  Advent prepares our heart room for a revolutionary Christmas Story that is to be delivered to the world, by us – one that is meant to shake this world free of violence and injustice – and to also shake our faith down to the central, ancient promise of God’s love…

I stand in solidarity with Mary today – with her longing for a new and just re-ordering of society – and I pray with her

“let it be, God” – “COME, open unto me”.  

For to follow in Mary’s footsteps is to be a mother of God ourselves. 

Today we will count joy. Maybe you don’t feel it yet…but in solidarity with joy being a force…an act of rebellion… a way forward. Let’s do it together in community.  Let’s count joy.

So right next to all those hash marks you made. All that represents love – and all that touches grief/pain and fear – I  want you to make a hash mark for the promise God makes to you, “that God is with you.”  And may those new hash marks be counted too.

Today in our time and in our culture, we get to sprinkle the disrupting, upending, reckless love of God into this world…and this is deep, deep joy.  JOY of many kinds… and….JOY TO THE WHOLE WORLD!

So may we repeat,

And repeat, and repeat, (and count and count and count)…

This sounding joy.

Let me pray for us:

“God, come close to us now. Keep singing to us. Show us how to love. Show us how to wait, to long, to push, to deliver you into this world, AND KEEP COUNTING JOY.”


My friends – as you greet the day ahead of you …

May you discover the newness of Jesus.

In the form of joy…

…grilled sweet potatoes

…little humans telling the story of Jesus’ birth,

…hot cocoa


…and the company of this community…

All held by the tender and bold presence of Jesus!

Bless you.

The God Who Walks With Us

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Nine years ago, two big things were happening in my life. I was sorting out how I felt about a request to consider being this church’s second ever senior pastor. That had been a surprise. And I was training to run my second ever marathon. I had run one in Hartford a few years earlier, and even though I was nursing an injury and had lost a fair bit of speed, I was really excited for marathon number two, because this was going to be the Boston Marathon. An amazing race in my hometown. My daughter Julianna was just 10 years old, but she liked to run a little, and we thought it would just be the best if she hopped in with me near our house, about three miles from the end, and we crossed the finish line together.

The day came, and right around mile 23, I saw my family cheering me on. I stopped, got some high fives and hugs, and Julianna joined me, falling into my pace. I was pretty worn out at that point, so I had to ask her to go slow and stay with me, to take a walking break with me now and then too. And my 10 year-old daughter did just that. She enjoyed the roar of the crowds and she set herself at my pace and cheered me on.

Things took a turn, though. About half a mile from the finish line, the runners ahead of us were stalled. Lots were just milling about, looking confused. There were some sirens too. It felt chaotic. Rumors were circulating – that a bomb, or maybe multiple bombs had exploded. Could that be true?

I tried to call my wife. My phone didn’t work. Another runner thought they had a signal, let me use their phone. But it couldn’t call through to anyone either. My memory’s not too crip as this point, so I don’t know if it was a race official or a police officer, but someone was calling out:

“The race is over. Course is closed. Walk away. Go home.”

Later, we’d learn of the two brothers, the two bombs, the three deaths, the hundreds of injuries. But we didn’t know all that yet. We just knew we were three miles from home and had to walk there. 

Easier said than done. When you’re not an elite athlete or anything, and you’ve just run 25 1/2 miles and then stopped for a while, a lot of things are going wrong in your body. 

I was getting cold. I really wanted one of those flimsy but strangely effective runners blankets we’ll talk more about soon. But there were none around.

And I really needed something to drink and some food. And the joints and the muscles in my legs were so, so sore. So you know what I did? I turned to my 10 year-old daughter, so much smaller, seemingly weaker than me. And I said

Can I lean on you?

And I put my arm around her little frame and leaned on her just a little bit and started walking. 

And with her help, and some more help along the way to come, we made it home. We made it home. 

This week, the third week of Advent, we’ll talk about the God who walks with us, about how our hope and our strength can be renewed, so we can find our way home.

Our scripture today is from the prophet Isaiah, in the 40th chapter, other parts of which get quoted around Christmastime. Here’s the bit we’ll read today. 

Isaiah 40:27-31 (Common English Bible)

27 Why do you say, Jacob,

    and declare, Israel,

    “My way is hidden from the Lord,

    my God ignores my predicament”?

28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?

    The Lord is the everlasting God,

    the creator of the ends of the earth.

    He doesn’t grow tired or weary.

    His understanding is beyond human reach,

29 giving power to the tired

    and reviving the exhausted.

30 Youths will become tired and weary,

     young men will certainly stumble;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

    will renew their strength;

    they will fly up on wings like eagles;

    they will run and not be tired;

    they will walk and not be weary.

Jacob is the name of one of the founding fathers and mothers of the people of Israel, which was first a name for a person. It was Jacob’s new name, and it meant the one who wrestles with, who struggles with God. And it became, in time, a name for a whole people. And the context here is the suffering of those people in exile. Far from home, hopes dashed, living in a time and place and in ways that they never wanted to live. 

This scripture is spoken into existential threats and traumas like the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and far worse. 

We’re talking about threats like those small Caribbean and Pacific islands whose very existence is threatened by climate change. 

We’re talking about the lived experience of the Afghan refugees settling around us this fall and winter, some of whom some Reservoir friends were feeding just yesterday.

We’re talking about the unhoused opioid addict a few miles down Mass Ave from here, over whom everyone is arguing about what *can’t* be done

This poetry about the strength and presence of God that can renew your hope is addressed to people who have good reason to say to themselves: My way is hidden from God. God seems to have ignored my predicament.

I wonder if you have felt or said words like that this year. I wonder how many of us have wondered if our way is hidden or if God has forgotten us. 

Have those thoughts crossed your mind this year? Show up in your prayers?

I was talking with a friend who has felt this way, who has been facing discouragement after discouragement. And I texted these words of Isaiah. I’ve actually texted versions of these to a handful of people recently. 

Even young people become tired and weary,

        People in the prime of their lives stumble sometimes.

But those who hope in God

       Will renew their strength;

They’ll fly on eagles’ wings

They’ll run and not be tired;

They’ll walk and not be weary.

This is a profoundly beautiful promise, isn’t it? The words remind me a little bit of that walk home from my nearly finished marathon… stumbling, tired, weary. But in my daughter I had to lean on, in the store we walked into that gave me free food and drink, I could walk and not be weary. 

This hope for stamina, for energy, for resilience and strength in hard times is why I’ve been sharing these lines with a few people. And as I’ve been doing that, I’ve been struck by what God does here and by what people do. 

It’s a partnership, did you notice? Like everything with God, it’s a partnership.

We hope in God. That’s our first part.

And then God renews our strength. That’s God’s part – to do something within our minds, spirits, and bodies when we hope in God.

And then we run, we walk – metaphorically, I’m pretty sure – we fly.

This is less like those scenes with the eagles in the Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, the ones where just when everything is going bad and there’s no hope of escape, and eagles come swooping in to rescue you. I’d like a bird like that to appear sometime. Singlehanded, miraculous rescue from the sky – that is not what this passage promises to the people in exile or to you and me.

It’s more like the runners blankets we’re passing out today. Take a look if you want – open yours up if you feel like it. They’re pretty flimsy looking, right? Like what good are these stretchy piece of aluminum foil?

Thing is, though, when you’ve been running a few miles (or like 26 miles) and sweating, you wrap one of these things around you and it works. You don’t get the chills. It radiates back to you your own heat, which keeps you warm in a way that couldn’t happen without it. 

Those who hope in God will renew their strength… and then just watch what they can do. 

In Advent, we remember the arrival, the emergence, the appearance of God with us in the person of Jesus. But in the life of Jesus, wonderful as he was, we see that primarily what this meant was not a release of unbridled power. People wanted that from Jesus, but he wouldn’t, sometimes couldn’t.

What Jesus was, was he was the wisest, kindest, boldest, most loving, most totally in sync with God person we could conceive of. A new kind of human, and an accompaniment for others, one to lean on and hope in. God with us. 

Kosuke Koyama calls this nature of God revealed in Christ the three mile per hour God, the God who moves at our speed, who loves us by walking with us – God with us, not God over us. 

Jesus confirms this when he says

the way we’ll know him with us after his death and resurrection, so long ago, is through the Spirit of God that Jesus names not the Power, but the Paraclete – the one who comes alongside.

The Spirit of Jesus by which God is with us today is not the Force, but the accompanier. The one who walks with us, all the time, everywhere. 

When I had to walk my way back home after the Marathon blew up years ago, I didn’t know if I could make it. But then I remembered, and my daughter reminded me, I had someone to walk with, someone to lean on. I was not alone. I put my hope in that fact, and that gave me strength. 

Walking with others, metaphorically – being in friendship, being in well-connected and interdependent relationship is like this. It reminds us we aren’t alone. It gives us hope, which gives us strength. Walking with others literally, like taking walks with someone else, side by side, at one to three miles per hour, does this too.

It mirrors, it images God with us in tangible, embodied form. I encourage you, walk more with others this winter if you can. It can remind you of the God who walks with you, that there is nowhere you will ever go, no place you will ever be where God is not accompanying you, waiting to appear or emerge again to your consciousness. To help you hope in God and renew your strength.

What does it mean to put your hope in God like this? And how does that strengthen you, so that you can run and keep walking, and sometimes even fly? 

Three final images I’ll share. I hope that one of these will help. Looking at God. Yearning for God. Sitting with God.

Looking at God, yearning for God, and sitting with God. 

Looking with God. 

This month we’re spotlighting art our community made for our Advent art exhibit hanging in our sanctuary dome. This week’s art work is a drawing by Jenny Pan. It’s her reproduction, with a few changes, of Sister Grace Remington’s painting called “Mary Comforts Eve.” 

You have a very pregnant Mary, mother of Jesus. This is a woman whose yes to partnership with God, whose love and faithfulness, has for many been a picture of the ideal human, or even qualities of God with us. 

And with her you have, across time, Eve, one of the first humans from the first chapters of the Bible’s primordial legend, the mother of us all. Eve is looking ragged, unkempt, long hair flying everywhere. She’s troubled by shame and regret too – holding that twice bitten apple that reminds her of how she lost her way and said no to God. And she’s hounded – the serpent clings to her ankle, winds up her leg, to sting her again, to choke out life. 

But she comes to Mary and looks at her. Looking for redemption. Looking for accompaniment. Looking for help or hope or understanding. And Mary sees her, she sees all of her – which is what I read from Mary looking at the apple, not that she only sees Eve’s sin and shame and regret, but that she sees that too. And neither turns away, they choose to be in fellowship, in connection, and to see what comes of that. 

And quietly, subtly, Mary had her foot upon the snake. Mary isn’t going anywhere, she’s there to help.

The psychiatrist Curt Thompson says that

To be human is to be looking for a face that is looking for us.

As an infant, that’s what we first know to do, it’s our first yearning. We’re looking for a face that is looking for us. And it’s what we keep doing our whole lives. We yearn to be known, to be seen, to be searched for and called by name. 

And when we find that the one we’re looking for is also looking for us, that gives us hope and gives us strength.

I like to read at night. I often read a bit to help myself fall asleep. But last night, instead of that, I lay down by myself and quietly said to God:

I’m here. I’m looking for you.

And I lay there in silence for a while. And I felt led to call to mind how I am while looking for God. I didn’t have a snake and a serpent with me. I had two other things. I had an image of a place in my life where I’ve been quietly trying with all my strength to help somebody I care about. And there was love but also fear and fatigue in that. And I had an image of a way that in some of my stress this past month, that stress has overtaken me, sapped my strength, and not always left me at my best – and there was some fatigue and regret in that. 

And as I called that to mind, looking for God, I felt something open up in my mind, felt an emergence in me of awareness that God was with me, and I felt two things in God’s gaze.

For the stress and the not at my best stuff, I felt like God had a hand out, like I see you, it’s OK, I understand, I can help you move forward to a better place. 

And for my love and service, I felt like God was proud of me, that God liked and loved who I was in this, and that God was showing me this made a difference, this has mattered, and I felt the smile of God. 

And the peace and love that strengthens me to carry on with lightness, with new resolve, like I cannot say. 

Look for God, my friends, look at God. Be still, call what you know of God to mind, and sit in silence. See how God emerges for you, how you can hope in God and be strengthened. The God we are looking for is always looking for us, eager to call us by name, and to renew our hope.

More briefly, yearning with God. 

My friend, one of many mentors in my life, David Gushee wrote recently:

If Christmas is about everyone being happy and jolly and all’s well with the world, only a fortunate few can really participate.

But Advent is about broken people in a broken world, yearning for a promised redemption.”

Perhaps as you look for God, perhaps as you seek to pray, to talk with God in these last two weeks before Christmas, you don’t find yourself mainly talking about yourself and how you need God with you. 

Perhaps you are mostly yearning, yearning for change, yearning for breakthrough in your life, and breakthrough in any number of the many things wrong with our world. There’s a lot, right? 

Advent is for this as well. It’s for bringing to God the very things we wonder if God has disregarded, and saying with simple clarity: This is what I yearn for, God. 

This yearning, this taking the time to express this to God, is a way of hoping in God too. It’s a way of believing that this world matters to God and that the love and goodness of God, as it’s welcomed and expressed by more and more people, changes things. Directing that yearning to God, rather than bottling it up, strengthens us too.

And lastly, just sitting with God. 

That’s what these blankets are for….

Sometimes our hoping in God to renew our strength can be entirely wordless. We just need a gesture, a sign, a symbol that God is with us to renew our hope and strengthen us and grow our resilience. 

We’re going to need resilience this winter, friends. We’re all going to have our disappointments and our struggles. One way to do this that we are going to take some time to try right now is to sit still, and put a blanket around us. Go ahead….

And with that blanket around us, we imagine by faith that this blanket represents the loving presence of God with us – the Spirit of Jesus, the accompanier, the one who comes alongside. And we simply sit, silently, attentive to this sign of God with us, and see what comes to our heart and mind. How our body feels, how our mindset shifts, what emerges for us. 

Let’s end trying this. Take a moment with the blanket…

Waiting For The Heart

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

For this week’s Spiritual Practice, click HERE.

John 14:27

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

I went to the mall on Black Friday. Don’t judge me. I really like Christmas decoration, Christmas music, that whole mood you get into, and honestly the mall really knows how to capitalize (pun intended) my vibe. The people, the chaos, it was crazy and I wanted to be a part of it! 

What’s the word you think of when you think about Advent? Is it peace? Is it joy? Or is it anxiety on how much money you’ll spend on presents? Or trying to figure out how to get all the work done in three weeks to be out for the holidays? Or the hecticness of planning gatherings and travels? I do feel like the world goes a little on crazy mode in this season. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday! 

I’ve noticed that more and more, many people struggle with anxiety and depression. Mental health has come up again and again as something that’s really impacting people…that need more wisdom, science and study, and care from ourselves, friends, and family. And something I’ve personally noticed (not based on a study or anything) but that folks older than me struggle more with depression and the younger generation more with anxiety.

It’s just something I noticed. And I almost get it. Like with all that’s going on in the world, the bombardment of news and information, worries like climate change, and social media, it almost seems to me like anxiety is the most natural response. 

Mental health workers and scientists talk about how the body has this reactionary response that is explainable. It’s the fight or flight. When we’re faced with something that is upsetting or dangerous, that is our body’s natural response. 

I’m actually so good at fight or flight. Well usually it’s flight, denial, ignore, and even numbing and not sure what I’m feeling. But if I know you pretty well and I feel close to you, I fight. My therapist tells me to breathe first, do some other activity, to bring at least my body back to the present moment. But honestly it’s so second nature because the world has trained me and my body to respond a certain way. And to change it, it takes extra effort to create new brain pathways to respond differently. And some extra time. 

In seminary I took a class on a thing called the Clearness Committee. It comes from the Quaker tradition, which could be considered a Christian denomination, (but not all Quakers see themselves as Christians). I thought at first from their name they must quake or shake, but actually their distinctive tradition is how they worship–which is: they sit in silence for an hour. Imagine if we just sat in silence for an hour here!

Sometimes they might say a word or so here and there but mostly they just sit, in silence. Clearness committee is like that, but more specifically a way to discern and get clarity. They do so by sitting in a circle (mostly in silence). It usually involves one person sharing something and then sitting in silence some more and everyone kind of helps bring clarity to the person’s situation.

And one of the things I learned in the clearness committee was that, after you hear the person’s story or dilemma, you can bring up questions, but when you think of a question, first you sit on it. See if it’s just your curiosity or if it’s going to help this person bring clarity. So you don’t ask questions for your own sake, like, if they were talking about doing a grad program, you don’t ask “oh where and what program?” You sit with the question and see and ask if you really really need to ask, not for yourself but for them.  Maybe a question like, “How would it impact you, or would it, if you didn’t do the program?” or something like that. 

And it was funny how many times I would sit with a question, and I don’t say it, and how it just floated away if it didn’t feel important. Or other times, I wouldn’t say it, and another person would ask the exact same question. You gave it time. You waited. You sat in silence. You sat in the unknown, in the dark. And that’s actually how you gained more clear answers. 

One of the themes for the season of Advent our church is focusing on is waiting and hoping. It’s the time that Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Joseph and Mary were figuring out their turbulent relationship with this new surprise child that Joseph apparently knew nothing about at first. Awkward and probably a scary time for this couple. Mary was probably worried as any expecting mother does, how am I going to be a mom?! A mother to a God at that?! What a crazy time! I’ll tell you, an expecting pregnant mom’s mind is crazier than the mall on Black Friday. 

With this theme of waiting, we ask you to give us art to adorn our Dome Gallery right outside of those glass doors. The preachers have been picking one to inspire us to use in our sermons and I want to share with you, Tom O’Toole’s photography work titled, The Hopeful Tree. 

He titled it the Hopeful Tree. 

It makes me tear up just looking at it. I mean look at it. Look how old it is. I don’t know how old it is, but it doesn’t look like a young tree. And without leaves, so many branches reaching out and extended, growing and searching. And what shadow it casts, a big one. I imagine what it’s been through. And I can also imagine what it will become, maybe in the next season, full and vibrant, green. 

But the thing I love the most about this is that Tom titled it the Hopeful Tree. That makes all the difference for me. It shows me his resilience, his faith, his trust in God and imagination, that even in the face of what it apparently looks like an empty stripped down tree, Tom’s showing me his vision of the future, one that’s filled with a rebellious hope. I imagine standing in front of this photo next to Tom, maybe without the title there, I wouldn’t have known he’s the one who took it. And I’d say, “hm, a tree.” And he goes, “no. a hopeful tree.” And just like, everything changes about the way I see this tree. 

And the thing is, that’s more powerful than seeing a vibrant luxurious tree and calling it hope. It’s almost like, that’s easy hope, even a not that big of a deal hope. Like, shrug, I’m hopeful. Like cheap hope. Of course there’s hope, it’s live and well and all good, no worries. But when you’ve been through hell, going through some dire situations, with no evidence or reason or signs of hope, and you cry, “I have hope.” That’s faith. 

One of my friends has been journeying through her dad’s cancer recovery. She shared with me the feelings of sadness seeing her tall strong vibrant Dad, who would often pick up building projects around the house, just a few years ago making a tree house for her kids, seeing him go through chemo and medication, and lately having lost so much weight she described as skin and bones. I got a chance to talk to her during Thanksgiving weekend.

She had just finished an emotional family meeting, a rare one where the husbands had to watch the kids, and she and her sister, mom and dad sat around to talk about his evident deteriorating condition, trying to talk through the hard inevitables, and they started with logistics but somehow it turned into questions about church. You see, her dad had never really been into church although his wife and the girls have been devoted Christians. But he began to ask them,

Why do you believe?

My friend almost didn’t know what to say, saying I don’t know why because churches are full of broken people and we’re all just a mess. She shared with me how strange it was to hear him ask,

Who is God?

And then at the end they prayed together. She said that she heard him pray for the first time in a really long time. He never prayed, it was always the mom. But he prayed, she said, such an honest, baby-like faith prayer, full of questions and theology that strangely seemed so right and even biblical without him knowing anything. And he said in the prayer, this stoic private korean man, never-would-say-this-in front others, but in a prayer, how grateful he was for his wife and his daughters.

The ladies cried of course, and my friend was on a video call with me, as she was snacking saying, “that ended just 20 minutes ago, I’m so emotionally drained, it was crazy.” I felt honored to sit there and get a chance to see into a window of such an intimate and vulnerable moment of someone. It’s a dark time for this family. Her grandma, the mom’s mother, had actually just passed away a few weeks ago and now her dad with this… And yet, what a beautiful moment for this family. 

I think there might be a reason why there is a kind of surrender of a soul when we get faced with things like cancer or death. Because you can’t fight or flight anymore. You just have to be, in that moment, with all the fear and pain. And yet it allows an invitation to dig deeper to what the heart really wants. At times like this, with strange strength, things like hope and gratitude set in…for no good reason except that that’s the only thing that matters. I feel like my friend’s dad probably had every reason, and the whole family has every reason to be worried, troubled, be afraid, and they are, and yet, there was a gift for them in that moment of prayer. Tears, confession, gratitude, surrender, longing and seeking for peace that the world cannot give. 

Have you ever lit a candle in a bright room in the daylight? Have you ever lit a small candle in a dark room? Do you go on Christmas lights drives or tours in the daytime? No! You go at night.

The staff decorated this place a bit with Christmas lights last week. We turned on some 80’s/90’s inspired Christmas playlist, and I made my round to my colleagues while they were decorating to join me in a few merry steps. It was fun. 

And then, after a day of working in the office in the ministry center, I was heading back to my car, and the lights in here drew me in. I came inside to take in the lights as the sun was going down. It was dark. It was quiet. It humbled me, and made me see the twinkling lights differently than earlier that day. 

I think the heart is like a small twinkling Christmas light. Sometimes, it’s not the brightest or the most visible. I mean I think our brain and minds get so much credit. But if you quiet your mind a little, you might notice the heart’s burning hope, longing or desire. Its strength of peace, especially when there’s a cacophony of noise in the world. When you give it some time, some quiet and some silence. Sometimes by invitation of your own, or sometimes by invitation of circumstances where all the noise becomes background noise, when things are dimmed a bit, and darkness sets in, I think it’s then, when the little glow is the most beautiful. 

Darkness is a part of life. Heck it’s half of our lives, and if you don’t do well during those hours, those who struggle with rest or sleep, it’ll impact all of your life. In fact, those are really precious parts of our lives. Negative space makes a photo. When we are bored with “nothing to do” is when our brains get a chance to be creative or even thread together biographical narratives about our past and future. Do you wait for your heart to speak?

I think that’s what prayer is. Or listening to God is. Like the Quakers that worship in silence. Waiting on the Lord means quieting our anxious minds and listening. And I think, especially initially, it takes a really really long time. I think with practice it does get faster, like you hear and recognize God’s voice. 

I’ll end with this illustration. 

I grew up playing the piano. Have you ever been in the room when the piano tuner comes? Tuning a piano takes a really really long time. They go through each note, and turn up or turn down, with each note. I don’t know how anyone could have the patience to do so. Look up piano tuning on YouTube and try to watch it, it’s so boring. But when they are done tuning, you can play beautiful music. Well first you have to learn, and then practice, and then maybe memorize and feel it in your soul and body, and you become one with the piano to play beautiful music.

Maybe our heart is like a piano, sometimes really out of tune from clunking it around to different floors of our house. I hope that you will find some space and time to sit and wait on the Lord, waiting for your heart to tune. That you will find freedom and peace in God knowing that you are so in union with them, God knows you and you know God, that your hearts are one. Let me pray for us. 

God our Holy Thief: Staying Awake, Telling the Truth, and Letting Go

For this week’s Events and Happenings, click “Download PDF.”

Hello Friends. I hope you’ve been having a good weekend, maybe a long weekend with some extra time to eat and rest, or to cook, maybe to shop. I know some of you have been working this weekend – if you work in retail, it’s busy. Or if you own a small business or care for young children, sometimes the work never stops. I know a few folks in our community who’ve been working or on call to work in our local hospitals this weekend too. We are very grateful for them. 

I hope your Thanksgiving weekend has been good. Mine had a lot of good, a lot of highs. And then there were some lows too. Life just seems complicated these days, like the holiday itself. 

Thursday morning, I ran the Franklin Park 5K with one of my sons. That was awesome. I love Franklin Park. I love running. I love my son. It was pretty great to be running about as fast as this middle-aged body will go and to see my son waaay ahead of me, and then so far ahead I couldn’t see him at all. Yeah, that was a really good feeling.

And then on the way home, John turns to me and says – Happy National Day of Mourning, Dad.

And I kind of skipped a beat for a second, because I didn’t understand him at first. But he said, yeah, isn’t that what they’re calling this day now, because of genocide – national mourning day.

And then we had a conversation about what Thanksgiving represents to us all. A day of family and friends and food and gratitude? Or a day of remembering the worst of our history? A day of loss and grief? Or can it be both?

Friends, family, food, gratitude. Disappointment, loss, grief. 

Life is complicated these days. It’s hard and hopeful. And it can feel like it’s marching ahead, unstoppable, uninterruptible, just pushing forward in whatever mix of good and bad the fates have given us in these days of colder days and darkening nights. And our faith, I know, can feel much the same. Maybe our hearts are full, our prayers are rich, and we head toward Christmas full of faith, hope, and love abounding. Or maybe – and I know this is true of many of us – maybe it’s been a time of what our friend Cate calls a season of doubt and distance, of not sure where God is to be found, or if God is to be found at all. 

Into all this comes this interruption of Advent. Advent, the weeks before Christmas, is a chance to remember the surprising interruption of God moving in the world at times and in places and through ways we could never have imagined. And Advent, which means arrival, emergence, appearance, is an opportunity to long for the reappearance of God with us, maybe where we haven’t been looking. Advent, these weeks before Christmas, is an invitation to interruption, to look for the new emergence of God in our consciousness. To see if God can stir faith, hope, and love in us. 

Let me pray for us.

The scriptures that ask God to show up again, or ask for help to see God where God already is, are weird. It’s like they have a hard time making up their minds whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Because as much as anything else, Spirit of God seems to be disruptive. God’s presence always shifts and rearranges things. God provokes seeing differently, listening differently, … being differently.

Take this one for instance, from the old prophet Malachi.

Malachi 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)

1 Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;

 suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.

The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,

says the Lord of heavenly forces.

2 Who can endure the day of his coming?

Who can withstand his appearance?

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.

These lines have captured people’s imaginations over the years. Maybe it’s because Malachi three is kind of a hopeful chapter – it’s about the end of exile, a time of homecoming and return to God and return to hope. Maybe it’s because in Chrisitan Bibles, it’s the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament, and these lines point forward – the way for the next appearance of God with us. 

There are songs inspired by these verses. They can’t really make up their mind on tone, though. They can be kind of gentle and hopeful, like the Jesus movement one of this church’s past:

Purify my heart, let me be as gold and precious silver… Refiner’s fire…

Campy, but sweet…

Or they can be like the version you hear sung this time of year from Handel’s Messiah.

For he is like a refiner’s fire… and who shall stand when he appeareth…

It’s the classical music equivalent of heavy metal… fast, loud, kind of fearsome. 

Fire as metaphor for God is a good one.

We don’t live without fire, not long at least, or not around here. Fire warms and heats and cooks. Fire in industry makes things, cleans things, illuminates and purifies things. 

But fire burns too. It moves and dances. It’s good but it’s wild. 

I think what we get here is a longing for God. We don’t live without God, the source of life. And life is colder, bleaker without the goodness and possibility of God. But God, though safe, isn’t just tame or mild. God moves. God changes things. 

The scriptures sometimes have a hard time making up their mind whether or not the arrival of God, the fire of God is a good thing or not. 

It’s like this piece of artwork for our Advent art gallery this year. You submitted artwork – poetry, paintings, photos, drawings – for this year’s Advent art gallery, and we’re going to highlight one submission each week.

This week’s is by Jude Nardella, age 7. 

It’s inspired by this book, If you Want to See a Whale, and the words

“If you want to see a whale, keep both eyes on the sea, keep both eyes on the sea, and wait… and wait . . . and wait . . .”

I love it, Jude.

When something big that we don’t know or can’t expect is happening underneath or around us, is it a good thing or a bad thing? If someone texts you and says to call them because they have some big news, do you first expect it’s going to be good or bad? It could be either.

Advent is kind of like this – waiting for God, but not just waiting. It’s looking and looking, keeping both eyes open for where we can see God. 

Jesus picks up this theme, when he talks – several times in the gospel – about keeping an eye out for God and about God showing up when we least expect God and where we least expect God. 

Like here, in the good news of Luke:

Luke 12:35-40 (Common English Bible)

35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit.

36 Be like people waiting for their master to come home from a wedding celebration, who can immediately open the door for him when he arrives and knocks on the door.

37 Happy are those servants whom the master finds waiting up when he arrives. I assure you that, when he arrives, he will dress himself to serve, seat them at the table as honored guests, and wait on them.

38 Happy are those whom he finds alert, even if he comes at midnight or just before dawn.

39 But know this, if the homeowner had known what time the thief was coming, he wouldn’t have allowed his home to be broken into.

40 You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.”

So Jesus moves from one ambivalent metaphor – fire – to another, the late night intruder. You hear noises at your door in the middle of the night? What do you feel? How do you react? 

Depends what you’re expecting, right? If you’re waiting for your partner or your child to come home, you run to the door. You’re excited. If not, well, you’re probably terrified. 

The details of this passage are maybe distracting to us. We don’t much like master and servant language, for good reasons, but Jesus was just using the experience of a wealthy household that his mostly working class audience would have heard about and imagined… their lifestyles of the rich and famous fantasy.

Or maybe some of them had been servants, working in the household of Herod the king in Jerusalem when they were younger, or recruited to serve in some Roman general’s household. They might have known what it was like to have to stay up late on the job, waiting for the whims of their boss, hoping the boss would come home from the banquet tired drunk or happy drunk, not angry drunk. 

Jesus, like he usually does, works with this familiar story material, but he subverts our expectations. Because that’s what Jesus does, he’s in the business of turning so much of the world upside down.

On the whole good news/bad news question, Jesus has a real side here. It’s good news. But it’s good news we can miss.

Watch out, he says, be ready for God, like you would be for the most important person you have been hired to serve.

Because God too is a most important person, who shows up unexpectedly. But this is what God’s like – God is going to show up unexpectedly and people who thought they’d get a raw deal, or people who thought they’d just have to serve are going to sit you down at the table while God cooks them dinner and serves their every need. You are not going to want to miss that. That is what God is like. 

Like out at sea, watching, watching for a big whale, and you see it moving upward, right beneath you, bigger and bigger and bigger, only to have it surface, roll over on its back, and wait for you to rub its belly.

I think even the language of the thief is subversive here.

Jesus is saying that important things happen when you least expect them, so be ready.

It’s true of God. The Human One, which is Jesus’ nickname for himself, often translated “Son of Man” shows up when you least expect him. God, in all the forms and ways God comes to us, can be missed. 

I’ve been thinking, though, about this image of the thief, weirdly resonating with it. Because who wants to be robbed, right? Nobody.

Nobody waits up at night, hoping a thief will show up at their door.

Except in the ways we kind of are.

I was talking with friends this week who spent part of their holiday week sorting through all their stuff, and finding things to give away and throw away. They’re older, and when their parents passed, it was a terrible burden to sort through all their parents’ things, a burden they don’t want their children to have. 

My mom was talking this way on Thanksgiving, like why does she have the stuff she has… the stuff she has collected, the stuff her parents collected. She was sort of wishing someone would come and unburden her of these things.

I had another good friend who, when his mother passed, had to go through all her possessions, and realized some really sad and heavy things about his mother as he did this. This all became so heavy for him that at one point, he took this ring that had been his mother’s and ceremonially threw it into a deep river. And as he threw that ring, he was letting go. It was a way of unburdening himself of parts of his mother’s legacy that he didn’t want to carry any more.

Having that be taken from him. 

Which gives me a weird question for us all as we begin the Advent season. As we’re looking for God, waiting for God to deepen our faith, hope, and love, in what ways do we need God to be our holy thief?

What burdens are we carrying around that we would love for Jesus to take from us? 

What blocks in our life could we use God’s help unblocking, removing? 

What habits, what mindsets could we use Spirit of God’s help in cleansing of us, burning away? 

How could we use the presence and power of God to rob us of the fears and burdens and head trash we’re carrying?

What patterns in the world do we long to see God help disrupt?

One more story before we end with these questions again.

Last Sunday, in our worship services, Ivy and Cate and Matt led us through what felt to me like a beautiful kind of funeral. How many of you were there?

For a while now, starting in Advent several years ago, we’ve had these occasional participatory liturgies, where we drop the sermon, and change the way we use time and space in our worship service to invite us all to participate in new and deeper ways. Ivy has usually played the lead role in creating these, and they’ve been great.

Last week’s service was a kind of funeral. With bells and silence and more, we were invited to name our losses and griefs and have those shape the table over which Jesus meets with us. 

And let me tell you what happened for me.

I was sitting by myself in the back of the room, wondering what loss I would name. And while my eyes were closed, I pictured a giant stone, one of those immovable boulders you might see while hiking. And I felt like I was behind that stone somehow and couldn’t get through it. 

In that moment, the stone represented to me a couple of places where my hopes are very low, where my outlook in life is pretty dim. And I sat there, sensing Jesus with me, and asking God if God could help move that stone. 

Interestingly, nothing much happened. I didn’t see the stone move, but it felt good to know that God knew about it and that God was with me.

But then, while I stuck with that image of the stone, I knew in my instincts that it stood for something else too.

Prayer is weird like this, by the way. If we can practice sitting still, closing our eyes if it helps, believing God is with us, and just seeing where that goes, we sometimes find our imagination going interesting places, and sometimes it seems like God is with us in that, communicating with us. This was one of those times.

I’m sitting in our sanctuary in the in-person service, in our funeral, and I’m aware that stone’s blocking the path of a friend of mine. I have a friend, a person very important to me, whose anxiety and depression have been getting worse this year. And they’re doing the things they should do in terms of getting professional help and all, but it’s just not changing yet. This is something that I talk with my friend about and that I pray about a lot – it’s the deep sadness of their life, and it’s become one of my sadnesses too.

So I’m sitting there, and the stone is my friend’s immovable depression and anxiety, the way it’s crushing them, choking out freedom and life for them these days. And in my prayer, the stone starts to move. And it’s like that huge stone that was said to be in front of the tomb where Jesus was buried, the stone that Spirit of God worked to move aside.

And I’m cheering God on in my prayer now, like you can do it, God, and I feel like Spirit of God and my friend are together moving that big, big stone. And I know this is just happening in my prayerful imagination, but it feels so good and hopeful that I’m tearing it up, and rooting for others to push on that rock, wanting to reach out and push the stone some more myself, so my friend can see the light and be moving forward again in life, toward the next possibilities for their awesome self. 

And that was it. The service moved on to the next moment, or maybe I opened my eyes and wanted to ring one of the bells, or help a latecomer find their seat or something. I don’t remember. 

But that moment has stayed with me because it felt so real and it felt like hope, for Jesus to be unburdening my friend in the middle of the night. I’ve been in touch with my friend this week, it’s not clear that a miracle is moving yet, but I’m hopeful. I hope my prayers and this image I saw is hopeful to them too. 

Friends, what burdens do you need God’s help unburdening? What stones do you need Spirit of God to help you roll away? 

The Pendant family lit our first Advent candles this week, reading and praying the words of the liturgy that Pastor Lydia has adapted for us this year, from the resource Black Liturgies, a great resource of African-American culture and spirituality infused into words and prayers for Christian worship.

This week’s words remind us that dark spaces, night spaces, can be generative. They can be where the work of God with us is born.

Jesus tells us today that when we don’t see God, keep a watch. Stay awake, because God is coming.

Jude’s art about the whale reminds us to keep both eyes on the sea and wait for it, wait for it, wait to see what lies beneath. 

Advent is an invitation to tell the truth about our lives and world – to tell the truth to ourselves about where we need God – to tell the truth about our unfinished stories and our pains and needs and burdens – and to ask God to help us see God in them and cooperate in the liberative work of God with us. 

Advent is an invitation to look at our clenched fists and see what stones we’re holding and to start to let go. Spirit of God, Spirit of Jesus, our holy thief doesn’t take anything from us that we don’t want to give. There is no violence in God. God only takes what we freely yield. 

So friends, as we begin the season of Advent this week, with the image of God as a refiner’s fire, and a holy thief, present where we’ve given up on God to unburden us, to free us from what we don’t want or need in our lives, let me ask you again:

What would you like Jesus to take from you?

What burden, what bitterness, what block, would you like God’s help in burning away? 

Consider writing it on a piece of paper and burning it later. (If you’re with us in person, you’ll have the opportunity to do that at the end of the service as you go outside.)

What do we willingly, gladly, wish Spirit of God’s help in burning away? What stones are keeping us from Gods’ life moving forward in us? 

God’s eager to be with us in this, assuring us God is with us, partnering with us in our personal and collective moves toward liberation.

Let’s pray.