November 30

‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

-- Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Just inside the front door of our home hangs a set of sleigh bells. Mind you, these are not the sort of cheesy little jingle bells that are sold everywhere this time of year. No, these are the real McCoy— a matched set of twelve round brass bells, heavy and solid. Once upon a time they were suspended on a leather harness, and served the purpose for which they were created: clearly and cheerfully announcing the progress of horse and wagon or buggy.

But not anymore. For many years they have been tacked in two graduated rows of six onto a polished wooden plaque, placed there by my grandfather’s careful hands as a gift for my grandmother. Those bells had been part of her beloved father’s legacy to her, one of the familiar sights and sounds of a childhood spent growing up on a farm in central Illinois. Gram had moved off the farm when she married; but she cherished memories from those days all her life, and gladly shared them with me when I’d come over to visit. I loved those stories and would listen for hours, wide blue eyes peeking out from under straight brown bangs as we baked cookies or put up jam or washed dishes. Gram always had things to do at her house.

I could hardly walk past that plaque without touching the bells, and imagining them jangling with the rhythm of a horse trotting along a country road. More than once, Gram let me take them off the wall and give them a shake. “What a racket!” she’d exclaim, smiling. “They really do belong outdoors. You can hear them quite a ways.” And then she’d tell a story about hearing those bells as she played in the yard, or helped her mother in the house, or sat in the one-room schoolhouse across the road. She didn’t always know what he was doing, or even whether he might be going out or coming home; but the sound meant Pa was nearby.

So now here we are, at the beginning of Advent. In the United States, we’ve just finished Thanksgiving feasting. We hardly have time to take down the pumpkins and corn stalks before leaping into the excited flurry and bustle that is the usual precursor to Christmas in America. Shopping, and decorating, and baking, and parties, and sending cards and presents...It’s as though someone hung out a sign: “Jesus is Coming! Look Busy!!”

Then comes this reading— and it doesn’t fit our happy retail imagery at all. Oh, it’s about preparation, certainly. But there are no chubby-cheeked cherubs sleeping in tidy mangers with adoring shepherds gathered round, no peaceful snow-covered vistas, and certainly no Jolly Old St. Nicholas. Instead, we have darkened sun and falling stars...and warnings to be ready, to keep awake “for you do not know when the master of the house will come.” At first blush, it sounds ominous, almost foreboding.

But is it? Oh, make no mistake, the portrait here is of the Son of Man in all glory, mighty and powerful, as befits the Lord of Life, the Creator of all that is and ever will be. And part of me can’t imagine greeting our Savior’s return in such a manner without my knees knocking.

But then I remember that this is “the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy,” as the old prayer says. The God who made the irrational choice to leave the trappings of omnipotent power behind and to live with us as wholly human, complete with bad hair days and dirt under his fingernails and parents who didn’t understand him. The God who loves us enough to call us brother and sister, son and daughter, beloved friend. The God whose very essence is love.

Just as the servants put in charge during the master’s absence, we have work to do in the meantime. Good work. “What does the Lord require of you?” the prophet Micah asks. “To do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These are enough to keep us busy in a manner far different than the retail therapy that is our cultural imperative. More challenging, more consuming...more difficult, and infinitely more rewarding.

No, we do not know the day or the hour; but it doesn’t matter. We work, and we wait— not in fear and trepidation, but in eager anticipation of the arrival of love.

Like a little girl listening for the sound of Pa’s sleigh bells.

Gracious God, help us to see your face in one another, and to so prepare for your coming that we are ready to receive you in joy.

--Jane Ellen

November 29

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in Him with all speech and all knowledge-- even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you-- so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
--1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (RSV)

This time of year we think much of gifts and giving, but we tend to focus on material rather than spiritual gifts, including memories of gifts given and received from the past.

There were many special dolls and wonderful books that came to me as Christmas gifts. Yet the Christmas memories that are most compelling are those of love and acceptance, both given and received.

I was about five years old the Christmas Eve that a friend of my parents unexpectedly appeared on our doorstep. He and his wife had recently separated. His four year old daughter was with him for Christmas. He was confused, lost, and bewildered. He didn’t know where to go or what to do with his little girl.

There were three of us in the family then -- it was before my youngest brother was born. Although my parents had their hands full with 3 kids under the age of 6 hyped up for Christmas, they welcomed these two wanderers and enfolded them into the family.

My father told me many years later how shocked he had been to find that his friend had made no preparations for Christmas Day. Dad didn’t want his friend’s daughter to watch the rest of us opening our gifts the next morning and have nothing to open herself, so he took his friend to the drugstore, the only place open on Christmas Eve night, to get a few presents for the little girl. This was before the time when stores remained opened late on Christmas Eve for last-minute shoppers.

On another Christmas afternoon many years later, I was reading – probably a book I had received that morning. The house was relatively quiet after the family breakfast and present opening around the tree. Suddenly I heard a woman crying and pounding on our front door. Dad opened the door to a friend who had recently been through a divorce. She and her ex-husband were both alcoholics. She had had too much Christmas “cheer” and now was wallowing in drunken melancholy and regret. All the rest of us scattered. My mother stayed upstairs and didn’t come down. We didn’t know how to react to this woman whose grief was out of control.

My father, however, greeted her as if she were a much-anticipated guest. He did his best to cheer her up in his own inimitable style. He finally succeeded when he went to his organ (he was an amateur musician) and played loud and fast, getting her to sing Christmas carols with him. By the time she left she was smiling.

“The grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and knowledge…so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” wrote Paul to the letter to the Corinthians.

We tend to think of spiritual gifts as the skills of the “church professional:” teaching, preaching, interpretation, prophecy and healing. We forget that often the everyday acts of kindness, charity, and compassion are also spiritual gifts. The gift of hospitality demonstrated by my father in these two situations (and in many others as well) was “revealing of Christ” to his friends and to me.

Thank you, God, for the spiritual gifts You have given us that enrich our lives and testify to the greatest gift of all, Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we anticipate during this season of Advent. Amen.

--Quotidian Grace

November 28

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh. Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
--Psalm 80:1-3 (NRSV)

"Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat; please put a penny in the old man's hat." On Christmas Eve my daughter and her three girl cousins will sing that song at their grandfather's house, just as their dads and mom once did. I can't wait to hear it. It's the season of anticipation. Children feel it particularly. They can't wait for Christmas to come. Even adults have particular things we look forward to in the season. In my small church, we look forward to the annual Hanging of the Greens, and many people tell me how much they treasure the lighting of the candles at the end of the Christmas Eve service. I also look forward to some secular pleasures: seeing the strings of Christmas lights appear around town and especially a large and lively representation of the Grinch on the porch roof of a Victorian house in my neighborhood.

It's against my family traditions to like such things. We never had more than a single, tasteful candle at each window. Why have I come to appreciate the lights so much? I have formed a theory over the past eighteen years, and it is that we need more light here in Maine because it gets so very dark. My hometown in Virginia is just enough further west in the time zone, and enough further south, that sunset comes later than it does for us here. I remember during my first winter in Maine having to turn on the living room lamps at a quarter to 3—and that was in a sunny room! It shocked me. Perhaps I hadn't been paying attention before. But I never remember having been so aware of the darkness as I have been living here.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is a time of encroaching darkness. The season of shorter days and longer nights allows us to identify with the people of long ago, those people who knew the rhythms of the year but couldn’t explain them scientifically. They had to wonder when the sun would return. They waited, just as we wait for the Son. The waiting is the hardest part. Living with the unknown is like driving after a storm when the streetlights have lost their power; just as we wait and hope for the electricity to return, people of long ago hoped for the light of God to shine again in their lives. The refrain is repeated throughout Psalm 80: Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

In the Psalm the people cry out to God, complaining that their prayers have gone unheeded. They feel abandoned by God. The psalmist names some of the sons of Jacob, the tribes of Israel. They understood themselves to be chosen as God’s particular people. Why would God desert them? In that darkness, they could imagine only one source of light: God’s face.
There was an Advent when I dwelt in that place of darkness and disconnection.

After losing a baby with a genetic abnormality, I was terrified when I became pregnant again; my history increased the risks for this new pregnancy. I didn't want to tell anyone I was expecting a baby. In both a spiritual and a psychological sense, I was holding my breath until I heard the test results. The short days, and the darkness, both hung on me that year. Where was God in this? The loss of my son two years earlier caused a shift in my understanding of God. I had always been taught that good people were rewarded and bad people suffered, and naïvely I believed it. This meant that quite a few things I didn’t like about my life must be my fault, and my usual way of praying was to beg God to change me!

I felt my way through the darkness alone in that Advent of 1994. I needed to find a new way to pray, and it did not come easily. God was not some Santa Claus who would reward my holiness, nor some Grinchy Claus who would take away all that I desired. What was God?

Maybe the problem was not with God, but with me. Just as the Grinch realized Christmas didn’t come from a store, I came to understand that God was not as simple as I had imagined. Not unlike the Grinch’s undersized heart, my image of God needed to grow three sizes.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Psalm 80:17-19, NRSV)

The psalmist imagined God as a Shepherd whose shining face meant safety to the flock. Whatever happened, whatever the news might be, I could find the strength to face it by keeping my eyes on the Shepherd.

Loving God, we are saved by finding you. Light our way as the days grow shorter. Let your face shine, that we might be saved. Amen.


November 27

Prepare the way, O Zion ,
Your Christ is drawing near!
Let every hill and valley
A level way appear.
Greet One who comes in glory,
Foretold in sacred story.
O blest is Christ that came
In God's most holy name.

-- Inspired by Isaiah 40:3-5 & Luke 3:4-6.

I love my Leatherman© Super Tool. Given to me by a family friend back when I did lots of backpacking and camping, I know I walked a little bit lighter and taller when it was attached to my belt. With it, I was prepared for anything and everything. After all, in addition to the standard knife and bottle opener, it comes with multiple screwdrivers, pliers, and wire cutters. Who doesn’t need multiple ways to cut and strip wires when they are out in the woods?

Prepared is what we are supposed to be. Even now, I want to be prepared for whatever comes my way, whether that means offering prayer in order to calm an anxious heart or having duct tape at the ready.

Being prepared means be ready to handle effectively whatever situation you find yourself. Handling it so it doesn’t take you away from where you want to be and who you want to be while you are there.

Of course, this is exactly the opposite of what it means to prepare for the arrival of Jesus the Christ. Instead of making sure you have the resources to handle whatever comes your way, Advent is about peeling away all of those layers of knowledge and protection that keep you status-quo-bound. Advent is all about allowing yourself to be completely vulnerable so that you can be swept up and away by the Word Made Flesh. Peeling away hurt that protects you from more hurt. Peeling away calluses built up from experience, telling you that this year won’t be any different. Peeling away the persona you put on to face the world, covering the child God created you to be. What do you need to peel away to reconnect with what is beneath?

The Coming of God is not something we can handle or absorb. It is Impossible! It is exactly the kind of thing that blows us off of our perches and takes us to places that we would never, when we were our former selves, thought of going. Thanks be to God.

God who arrives in places and times we could never anticipate, thank you. We don’t want to handle you, we want to welcome you into our hearts and lives. Show us where to find the courage to abandon those hopes of being ready and help us instead to empty ourselves. May we be filled, when you do arrive, with joy and singing and sharing so fantastic that even the cynics will not be able to resist You. Amen.