T’was Two Days Before Christmas

T’was two days before Christmas and all through my mind thoughts and feelings are bouncing before and behind. On one channel bad news of the world on a continuous loop: refugee kids in cages; impeachment shots fired across a partisan chasm that divides families and friendships; violence rages in streets from Hong Kong to India; and climate crisis wildfires and extreme weather bombard our fragile planet. Another brainwave features heavy grief for the parents of a young man I will bury on Friday. A personal memory that my father would have celebrated his 98th birthday this day tugs at my heart competing with the siren song of consumerism Christmas.

And yet if I listen carefully beneath the static a still small voice proclaims a miracle where one day’s lamp oil lasts over a week—a secret humans have celebrated for millennia every time the solstice darkness surrenders to more minutes of daylight. Another voice chimes in “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

I believe. And yet the cosmic tug of war between darkness and light still plays out in my frazzled brain. I drag my heels in futile resistance to turning the page of my mortality calendar into the December years of my life. Despair and hope swing light sabers to see which will rule the new year.

But I know in my better moments that incarnation doesn’t come when it’s easy or unneeded. It does not come with “swords loud clashing or roll of stirring drums,” but “silently, so silently” the the gift of hope is given where “meek souls will receive it still,” not in Time Square or St Peter’s but in a dark cave in a one-stable town where there was no room in the Bethlehem Hilton.

And by Menorah, or star in the east, or Solstice sunrise, the message resounds again and again – Let there be Light!

Lighting the Christ Candle

In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.

Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.

During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.

Unison Prayer
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen

4th Sunday of Advent, Candle of Love

Like expectant parents we can hardly wait for the miracle of new birth this Advent season. Our spirits are anxious about the labor pain required of us to be reborn in Christ, but the Love of God is stronger than our fears. And so like Mary and Joseph and. Elizabeth we dare to say no to hate in all its ugly forms and a resounding yes to God’s gift of Love wrapped in swaddling clothes.

It is God’s love we celebrate in Joseph’s devotion to Mary, a love so strong that even the baby John feels it while still inside his mother. It is love that dares to believe in the impossible, even a virgin birth. Love is the source of all of the Advent gifts. Hope, Peace, and Joy all flow from God’s love, but the greatest gift is Love. And so on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we light the Candle of Amazing Love that gives Hope, Peace and Joy to a world that badly needs them all.

Prayer of Confession: Please pray with me: O God of holy expectations, we are humbled when we ponder the faith and trust of all the Christmas story characters who trusted and believed in the power of your incredible love to change the world. We confess we don’t say yes to your Holy Spirit like Mary did, we don’t believe like Joseph, we don’t leap for joy like Elizabeth. The pressure of deadlines and responsibilities are enemies of love. Fear of getting outside our comfort zone keeps us from sharing the most precious gift of your love. Help us in the middle of this hectic season to recognize acts of kindness in others and face honestly our own failures to trust and obey your radical claim upon our lives. Help us keep Christ in us. Give us eyes to see the star, ears to hear the angels and the courage to obey and go where you say. Our Christmas prayer, O giver of life, is that we will be open to your amazing love being conceived in us this Holy Season. Amen

Advent: Hope

As in the days of Jesus’ birth we live today in times of distress and fear. Our nation and world are so deeply divided it is sometimes hard to sense God’s spirit among us. News of violence and suffering bombard us on all sides. The holiday traditions are great, but they keep us so busy we may miss the signs of God’s kingdom right before our eyes.

The Advent season calls us again to raise our heads and be alert so we don’t miss the most important parts of Christmas. Advent is time for us to quiet our hearts and see clearly what we really need from God. We do not long for more stuff that does not satisfy, what we long for are hearts full of Hope that the world cannot give or take from us.

And so today we light the first Candle of Advent, the candle of Hope.

Prayer of Confession: Gracious God, we confess it is so easy to lose hope. Family conflicts, grieving hearts, loneliness, aging, and illness seem to rob us of the things we hope for. The Christmas lights shine into the darkness of December, but they can also be so bright they overshadow the light of the world. We are tempted to trust Amazon to be our deliverer instead of the Messiah. We decorate the halls earlier but fail to make room in our hearts for the Christ child. As we hope for the calmness that surpasses all human understanding, remind us again that we don’t just need a little Christmas; we need to be more like Jesus to truly be people of Hope. Amen

Christmas Eve Prayer

O God, as we celebrate again this holy night, remind us that Christmas is so much more than just retelling a sentimental tale. We give thanks that Christmas is a time of fellowship and fine food, a time to put aside just for a while, the things that divide us. But let us not forget how marvelous and how expensive a gift Christmas really is. Remind us that the manger of Bethlehem and the cross of Calvary are both made of the same wood; that this small child, this incarnation of your love, was not sent to be a decoration for us to display for a season, but came to show us what real love looks like on a daily basis– a love that is willing to die for us, a love that came, as the angels said, to save us from all fear and give us eternal peace.

Remind us again tonight, God, why we tell the Christmas story– because of who Jesus became, what he taught, how he lived, and how he died but lives eternally. This cold winter night, we bring our gifts of thanks because though we are undeserving we are once more offered the greatest gift ever given—a free gift, with no strings attached—a helpless peasant baby who slipped quietly and unexpectedly into a world full of oppression and fear. He came to be a gift and to show us that we are also gifts, all of us, no matter how insignificant we feel we are all members of your human family.

Remind us that to be human is a gift, because it means that God’s own heart beats within us. Inspire us with stories of angels and shepherds to show us that we can all love as Jesus loves. That is truly a most precious gift. But Jesus showed us that it is also a costly gift – it will cost us our very lives, all that we are, to be the kind of gift Jesus is.

We praise you O God for the one true Christmas gift. Give us meek hearts to receive him, trusting hearts of children who dare to believe, and through the magic of Christmas let us allow ourselves to be transformed into gifts – gifts to one another of peace and love and joy to be shared with all the world.

In the name of the Christ child who is our Lord and Savior forever we pray. Amen.

[Written for Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH]

A Shepherd Lights the Christ Candle

Good evening. As you can see I make my living as a shepherd and my home is in the fields. Sheep are my business and our lives are pretty routine, even boring at times. But there was one night, much like this one, that I will never forget.

It started out as a normal night. I was watching the stars, one of my favorite pastimes. When suddenly, a light shone all around us, and we felt a, well…a presence. We turned, and there stood an angel! Frankly, it scared us out of our wits!

But the calmness in the angel’s voice quieted our fears as he told us of an incredible event that had just happened over in Bethlehem. The angel told us that our savior had just been born! Christ the Lord! Then he said a very strange thing. He said that we would find the messiah in a cattle stall, lying in, of all things, a manger. Then the sky filled with angels, all of them praising god for this marvelous gift. [Pause] and then they were gone and it was very quiet again.

Our people had been waiting for the messiah for a very long time, and we’ve had a lot of false alarms. But after talking it over, we decided we had to go check this out for ourselves. And, believe it or not, when we got to Bethlehem we found a little family in the stall and quietly approached them. We didn’t want to wake the baby. And there he was…the sweet little baby who would become our King of Kings, our Lord of Lords. The hope of all creation.

After a little while we returned to the fields full of hope and praising god for what we had heard and witnessed firsthand. We had seen the good shepherd who will always lead us back to god when we get off the path. [pause]

And so tonight, I light the Christ candle, to celebrate the gift of God’s son, the light of the world.

[Christmas Eve, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, concluding a series on the “Supporting Cast of Christmas.”

Mary: 4th Advent Candle

Pastor: On this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we continue our journey toward Christmas. And today’s supporting cast member in the marvelous Christmas story is a woman of tremendous Faith, Mary the mother of Jesus.

[Mary enters in contemporary dress]

Mary: Words cannot describe how I felt when I first learned you were to be the mother of God’s Son.

Mary: I was totally shocked when an angel showed up out of nowhere and told me I was to be the mother of the Messiah! Me! A poor young woman engaged to a carpenter. Why would God choose us to raise his son? I was scared to death!

Joseph and I were engaged but not married yet. You can’t imagine what my family and the townspeople would say about that. And what could I tell Joseph? He’d never believe God was the father of my baby! Nobody would. Joseph would assume I had been unfaithful to him. That was considered adultery, and the punishment for that was death by stoning! I was really scared!

But the angel told me that God was with me. He said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and being a devout Jewish girl, I knew this was true. Faith came over me and calmed my fear. I suddenly just knew that I could trust God completely. And from a place deep inside me I said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Then the angel told me about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, and I went to visit her so we could share our joy and excitement. But the joy I felt with Elizabeth couldn’t compare with what came later in that stable in Bethlehem. When Jesus was born and the soft moonlight gently fell on the one who was to be the light of the world, then we knew what real Joy was.

[Goes to Advent Wreath]

I hope my story reminds all of us that we are called to be faithful servants who know that with God all things are possible. As we light the fourth Candle of Advent may it light the way on our journey from fear to faith.

[4th in a series of Advent dramas by supporting characters in the Christmas Story, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Prayer for 4th Sunday in Advent

Dec. 24, 2017
O God of our lives every day of the year, we just want to thank you for this special day. Like expectant parents we can’t wait to celebrate this special birth again. But even in our anticipation some of us are worn out from preparing for Christmas. Some of us are not joyful because of losses we have suffered in the last year. Help us all to be sensitive and caring for those who are feeling grief or loneliness that is multiplied by this season’s festivities.

For some of us life is a struggle. We lack adequate resources to sustain life and strength to care for loved ones. Or we are separated from family by circumstances beyond our control. As this Christmas approaches closer and closer in different time zones all around the world help us to feel the ties that bind us together by the universal love that Christmas represents. The angels proclaim good news for all people, Mary reminds us that the poor and oppressed among us have a special place in your heart, O Lord, and therefore in ours.

May the humble simplicity of Jesus’ birth remind us to examine our own lives and priorities. Touch us with your grace so we can truly put our trust in you and not in material idols or worldly power. Help us to experience the miracle of Christmas this year with fresh eyes and ears so we feel the power of how unique and revolutionary Christ’s birth was and is for those who place their total faith in him. Let us kneel with the shepherds at the manger with renewed amazement and commitment to share the wonderful news of Christ far beyond Christmas Day.
Fill us with such hope by your willingness to become one of us, sharing our humanity with all its brokenness that we not only ponder this miracle in our hearts, but witness to those who need you most by paying forward the gift of Christmas in grace and kindness, mercy and love to everyone our lives touch.

We ask these things in the name of our Lord and Savior who taught us this prayer….

Second Sunday in Advent Prayer: Surprise Us, Lord!

Gracious God, as we go through the season of advent hearing the familiar stories, singing the beloved carols, there’s something very comforting about the traditions and the familiarity of the whole Christmas season. We feel cozy and at home with it all, and that’s good—up to a point.

But please pull a few surprises on us like you did with Elizabeth and Zechariah. Don’t let us get so much into auto pilot that our traditions become routine and lose their power. That first Christmas was anything but routine. Old women and virgins conceived, expectant parents were forced by foreign rulers to travel miles for a census only to be told they had to sleep in a barn.

But you had other plans, O God, and those oppressive rulers got upstaged by divine mischief and incarnation. Caesar and Herod took a back seat to a helpless baby in a manger!
What surprises do you have instore for our troubled and broken world this year, Lord? What unexpected and unheralded messengers of peace are you going to reveal to us in 2017. In these dark and cold shortest days of the year where will your light shine to show us your way of truth and justice? What healing miracles have you prepared for us? What acts of kindness and mercy is your Holy Spirit going to stir up in us to perform for those who least expect it.

Amid the clang and clamor of a world that has lost its way, dazzle us with a star that will lead us to Christ. Empower us like Elizabeth to believe the impossible so we can help produce for our time voices that cry in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord – Not back then but here and now. Whisper again in our ears the assurance that nothing in all creation can separate us from your amazing love in Jesus Christ. In his holy name we witness to your power as we join our voices in his prayer.

Wait Training: Third Sunday in Advent

advent-waiting-img_1492[This was our Advent Candle lighting for today at Northwest UMC. The opening monologue was written by Rev. Mebane McMahon and performed beautifully by Heather Sherrill. I wrote the candle lighting liturgy and prayer.]

(Talking on a cell phone) I understand I just had the test yesterday. I know you said, “Make an appointment with your family doctor next week. She’ll have the results by then.” I heard you say that, but do you have any idea how hard it is for me to wait until NEXT week. You told me that my blood work came back with some elevated levels. What exactly does that mean?

As I said, “I have this pain in my side, but last night I could barely sleep. (gesturing) the pain moved to my back!! What could that mean? (A little hysterically) It’s spreading!? This infection, inflammation, this blockage, this rupture or CANCER. It’s spreading. I know it is.

Christmas is 2 weeks away. I have two small children. I DON’T HAVE TIME FOR PAIN. How long do I have to wait? (Apologetically) I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. (sighing) I guess I’ll just have to wait. (hangs up call)

(Pacing and thinking out loud) Stay positive Heather. It might NOT be a life-threatening disease. Wait, she says. WAIT. (Takes a deep breath, Silence. Reflection.) I’m not good at this. Is there anybody who will wait with me? And pray for me? And help me when I can’t help myself?….And….And (softening and calming down. Breathing deeply) huh. I wonder if there is someone I can help in the meantime. Is there anybody else I know who is having to wait like this?

(Praying) O God, how long? How long do I have to wait for a diagnosis, for treatment and recovery? How long do I have to wait for healing and what exactly will that look like? How long? How long O Lord? (exits)

Candle Liturgy:
We are on our way to Bethlehem and the Advent journey gives us time to prepare our hearts and make room for the gifts of compassion, patience and joy that God wants us to have. But time moves so slowly when we’re waiting—waiting for a text or phone call—for news that our kids are OK; for a doctor to give us good news or bad news. Either way, it’s better to know than to be left hanging in the unknown where our imaginations can drive us crazy. As people of faith we know where we are and whose we are. Scripture and carols and prayer are the signposts on our journey that give us hope and peace. And today we light the third candle, the candle of Joy. The light is growing and Joy shines from our hearts to those who need good news.

Prayer:
O Holy God, waiting is exhausting and every year we seem to need the good news of Christmas more than ever. Help us wait with patience for the promised Joy of the season, but remind us that our waiting is not passive. Forgive us when we get so concerned about ourselves that we fail to see the needs of those around us. When we are anxious give us again the assurance that “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Remind us once more that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” so we can share your joyful good news for the world. Renew our hearts, O God, with your eternal love and help us be the joy we long for in the way we live and in how we relate to those who wait with us. In the name of the coming Christ we pray. Amen.