Thursday, January 26, 2012

What the tell?

Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:15).

Communication is an essential aspect of any society. In everything we do, we communicate something of ourselves with someone else. Even during times when we feel isolated - or when we choose to be - we are still interacting with goods and services that have the imprint of someone else's soul upon them. So, whether we are intentionally communicating or not, we are always interacting with others through the expression of our character. Some time ago I can recall psychologists making a big deal about nonverbal communication, or body language. Recent studies have shown there to be over ten thousand visibly differing facial expressions! Very few of us are aware of the subtle cues we give off that belie our true feelings. Gamblers call this a tell. A tell gives you away when you are bluffing. A tell is an expression of anxiety - a twitch of the hand or a repeated gesture. We all have at least one. Where is the tell in the Body of Christ? Surely the church has its own expressions. That is not a bad thing, unless we are unaware of it - unless we are unwilling to be truthful about it. Speaking the truth in love means knowing the truth. The truth is that we are limited. The truth is that God is not. The truth is that through God we, as a people, become unlimited when our wills become knit with God’s! Speaking the truth in love means speaking it in such a way that allows our limitations - our tell - to demonstrate God’s providence. During the coming months our Session - the Ruling Elders - will be considering ways in which we communicate as a body. We will consider our internal communications and our community relationships. We will consider how we communicate in print, on line, and in person. We will consider the ways in which we may continue to mature in faith - even as we grow older, even as we grow younger. In all things let all of us consider what we are telling the world about God - even as we experience, explore, and express the love of God. For every moment of our days is a chance to give praise to the one who love us like no other. Amen.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Dog Training and Discipleship

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
January 22, 2012 - Epiphany (3B)
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

I would imagine that most of you have had - at some point in your life - a pet. Not everyone enjoys the burdens and blessings brought on by taking one of God’s creatures into their care. Those who do are either really good at faking it or truly appreciative of the love they receive from an animal. Owning a pet is somewhat of a luxury, of course. There are many nations and cultures that think we are nuts for treating animals as family members. Americans spent around 50 billion on their pets last year - a figure that has continued to climb regardless of the economy.

Pets, in our culture, fall somewhere between a connection with God’s creation and a hubristic expression of vanity - and sometimes it is a little bit of both. I say this as a new pet owner, having recently acquired/rescued a “designer dog” from ARF-LA.

Being a rescued dog, Emma Jane is a little short on discipline and etiquette. For those who have been through the joy of dog training, you know that it can be a frustrating process. I’m not sure how things have changed over the years - my previous dogs were outside only pets - but current schools of thought are heavily focused on affirmation and praise - much the way that many are viewing parenting.

For the uninitiated, training a dog involves: repetition, making sure the environment is correct (limit distractions, use the right kind of supplies for the given behavior), repetition, rewarding and affirming good behavior, repetition, connecting behaviors with appropriate consequences, repetition, seeking advice when things aren’t working, and more repetition. In the midst of all of that is the hope that you are doing things right, the belief that the desired behavior will eventually happen, and a fair amount of prayer (for the patience you do not have). In the end, there is the expectation that all of your efforts will not just result in particular behaviors, but in a relationship with your dog that includes some level of mutual benefit.

I say mutual benefit because I am already realizing that my dog - obviously without intention - is teaching me things about myself. My dog is teaching me that it is hard to discipline another creature without being disciplined myself. Given that we often see the worst of ourselves in the faults of others - my dog is also teaching me that I am pretty head-strong and reluctant to becoming disciplined. For example, I’ve gotten more exercise this week than I have in months.

Discipline - some of us embrace that word more fondly than others. Some of us find comfort in the routine of it while others feel smothered by it. Discipline is the elephant in the living room of Christianity, though. It’s implicit in the title of a Christian Disciple.

I think some of us tend to want that title, Disciple, to describe 12 men who lived about 2,000 years ago. Then there are some who use the term, Disciple, to describe something entirely different. Discipling, making disciples, and being discipled are words in the contemporary Christian vernacular that refer to anything from indoctrination to a specific set of beliefs to virtual Christian apprenticeships depending on the context and the group or individual using them.

In Jesus’ day, the Rabbinic tradition held that those who wanted instruction would adhere themselves to a teacher. They would become an adherent - literally bound to the teacher to become a part of the teaching - with the hopes of becoming a Rabbi in the same tradition when the teacher became to old or departed.

What was different about Jesus is that he chose his disciples. Jesus called Simon and Andrew mid cast, and they came and followed him. Jesus called James and John and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired help. I’ve always wondered how Zebedee felt about that. Obviously he was more successful than Simon and Andrew - he had hired help - but these are his sons. In the past I’ve felt bad for him, but now I am not so sure. Jesus came to tell James and John that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that he would help them to “fish for people.”

Ol’ Zeb was not called to be a disciple because someone still had to catch real fish for real mouths, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It does make me wonder, though. How many of us are called to keep fishing, and how many of us are called to let down our nets and follow Jesus as an adherent - fusing our very lives with his teachings and becoming the fulfillment of the promises that he made?

I’d like to think that it is all that simple. I’d like to think that there are those who are sent and there are those who do the sending. I’d like to simplify the gospel into practical terms that let me off the hook of the hard work of caring for someone else when it is not convenient to do so. But I don’t think that is what it means to be a disciple of Christ. In fact, I think it means that within each of us there are nets that need to be set down in order to pick up the nets we are properly called to. For if we are commanded to go and make disciples of all nations, surely we must, ourselves, be Christ’s disciples.

Unfortunately, the New Testament is a little fuzzier than we want it to be when it comes to saying who and what a disciple is. In some places it is the 12 (Mark 3:13-15). In other places it is any curious follower of the teachings of Jesus (John 6:60,66). And in still others it is used to describe those who believed in Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 6:1,2,7).

Believe it or not - and as awkward sounding as it is - I think the cryptic message Paul gives the church in Corinth can help us out. First, let’s assume that a disciple is any member of a gathered community seeking to follow Jesus and looking toward the hope of the resurrection. That is who the Corinthians were.

Paul has just written an extensive argument about ethical relationships and why you should or should not get married. Although his denial of natural feelings and relationships seem a little bizarre, the key is found in the phrases, “the appointed time has grown short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.”

Now this could easily be dismissed in the same way that recent predictions were when they did not come true. Has no one really realized that Paul was over 2,000 years and counting off the mark here? Or was he? Perhaps things have not gone the way Paul was expecting, yet I believe that God still speaks a word of truth in and through Paul’s human frailty. Even though the gospels had probably not been circulated yet, we presume it to be true (and to be part of the oral tradition of the early church) that Jesus said that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Repent - where have I heard that before? Yes, repent! That is what the Ninevites did. They repented, they turned from self gratification toward God’s glorification. And God... changed... God’s... mind. Jonah, the reluctant prophet - all covered in fish goo, got up and spoke the word of God to them, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” End game. Boom. Your done. Thus says the Lord, and so say we all!

And they heard it. And they - as a people, from smallest to tallest and their little dogs too - repented. And God changed - God changed God’s mind.

So, it makes me wonder, could it be that the Kingdom of God has drawn near? Could it be that we are not listening to the ticking of a cosmic time bomb so much as we are being invited to lay down those nets which aren’t catching anything so that we can pick up the net that Jesus has placed at our feet? Could it be that God awaits our repentance and invites us to participate in changing the present form of this world?

Yes. The present form of this world is always passing away. The present form of our institutions, even our very buildings and structures are always passing away. The opportunity to follow Christ, to become more disciplined, and to offer discipleship is always passing away. But it is also always passing our way.

Come to think of it, repetition is pretty important in discipleship. Come to think of it, putting ourselves in places that we can experience, express, and explore God’s grace are pretty important in discipleship. For that matter, affirmations and rewards are pretty important to faith development too.

All these things are laced throughout our practices of worship and faith formation. All these things are based on the assumption that we might find a greater connection to God, to each other, and to ourselves through the assurance of faith in Christ.

Now, don’t get me wrong - in case you’ve noticed the similarities between dog training and discipleship - I’m not suggesting that a disciple is a canine companion for our best friend Jesus. I am, instead, telling you that I believe that through our adherence to the call of Jesus to repentance we have been given the opportunity to change the mind of God. We have been given the opportunity speak the word of God. We have been given the opportunity to weave the fabric of the new heaven and the new earth through our participation with the will of God.

And what does all of that look like? It looks like a world where all serve each other - a world where the voiceless are heard, the friendless have comfort, and the invitation to receive and respond to God’s grace is constant! It looks like a world that expresses the love of God for all of creation! It looks like a world where people are bent toward glorifying God over and above themselves. So, whether we fish for fish to feed people or for people to glorify God, may all that we do be an attempt to be as Jesus and proclaim the Kingdom of God - which is both present and yet to come! Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Voice of God

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
January 8, 2012 - Baptism of the Lord 
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

Knock, knock! The congregation responds with, “Whose there?” Water. Water, who? Water you waiting for? Open the door already!

That’s how a lot of conversations start in my house these days. Knock, knock jokes show up in lunch box notes, times of silence, or just randomly at dinner time. I have to admit that there are times when I feel a bit stretched to come up with something new. We all have times in our lives when we feel that way - like even the familiar things are hard to make happen because we are just tapped out.

Thirst is probably the best metaphor we can come up with for times like these. Hunger works pretty well, but that seems to be about a more particular need. Perhaps that is because our bodies are mostly water. Some say that our bodies are as much as 60-70% water. In fact, you can live for weeks without food - as long as you have water. Without water you are lucky to make it 2-3 days.

The Hebrew Scriptures begin with water, and with the Spirit of God hovering over the water - speaking creation itself into being. They could not have known that we live on a planet that has 60-70% of its surface covered with water. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think it is no accident that we share that percentage with the earth.

Of course, only 2.5% of the earth’s water is drinkable - and 2/3 of that is bound up in glaciers. Scientists believe that most of that precious 1/3 that is left - and is available to drink - is bound underground in aquifers.

It is no wonder that the majority of deaths in developing and overpopulated regions of our shared space on this tiny rock are due to unclean water. In fact, I once heard it prophesied that the wars of the future will not be over oil so much as they will be over clean water and the technology to provide it.

Of course, this is nothing new. There is nothing new under the sun, and all is a vanity and a chasing after the wind. So-called wars over water rights involving under handed politics and outright attacks on people and property have been going on in California since the early 1900’s.

In fact - when I lived in Dalton, GA in 2008 - the drought was so fierce that the police levied fines on those violating water usage rules and encouraged citizens to turn each other in. Among those fined was the church I served when we forgot to adjust our sprinklers after Day Light Savings began. So, what did others do? The wealthy dug wells and posted signs to demonstrate the fact that their sprinklers were legal. Then there was an attempt to “re-annex a small portion of the Tennessee River based on faulty surveys from 1818” - that did not go so well.

Yes - the world is thirsty, in more ways than one. Just turn on the news and you can see that. Just go shopping for a decent birthday or Christmas card with kids in tow and you will find yourself in the midst of a “teachable moment.”

And in the midst of this we receive these texts that tell us that the voice of God disturbs and destroys creation, and we should be happy about it. The voice of God presides over floods and crumbling mountains while we cry, “Glory!” Then we have this story from Acts about correct and incorrect baptism - not to mention that the correct one includes the Holy Spirit making people do weird things - followed by the story of Jesus getting a baptism of repentance! Of course that ends with the voice of God preceding the Holy Spirit, which descended gently and then ran him out into the wilderness.

Am I the only one who feels a little spent - maybe even a little thirsty - after hearing all of this? Well, let’s start with Jesus. That’s always a good place to start - especially since part of the conflict in Acts is about sharing in his baptism. There are many theories about why Jesus was baptized by John. Baptism was not a highly regulated practice in temple worship at the time. It was more of a ritual cleansing - a symbolic gesture of your intentions to follow someone’s teachings or perhaps a demonstration of your desire to change some habit or pattern. 

John was calling for repentance - a word that means to change your direction or reverse your orientation. John was calling for a change from self interest to dependence on God’s interests. So, it makes sense that the baptism of Jesus would be the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.”

So, then, the voice of God speaks God’s approval. Then the Spirit of God descends as a dove, and that same Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tested and tended to while awaiting the time to demonstrate the new reality that John proclaimed. His proclamation began with prophecy - both the one about him and the one he offered about Jesus when he said, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

And so it was with the converts that Paul had to straighten out in Ephesus. They had not heard of the Holy Spirit. They wanted this Holy Spirit! They received this Holy Spirit, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied! Now, let me stop right here and say that it is Paul himself who later assures us that not everyone receives these gifts, and - in fact - if you speak in tongues and there is no one there to translate it you'd be better off keeping your mouth shut (1 Corinthians 14:28).

Of course, speaking in tongues can also refer to speaking to another in a language previously unknown to the speaker. I prayed fervently for that gift on French tests in college to no avail! That being said, I think that prophecy is not only more realistic but also the responsibility of all who follow the way of Christ. What? You did not receive your crystal ball when you joined the church?! Don’t tell me that your dreams are more concerned with the bizarre and mundane than a vision of God’s activity?!

That’s OK. I don’t think that is what it means to be prophetic anyway. Being prophetic means being open to what God is doing. Being prophetic means being oriented around the things that break God’s heart. Being prophetic means, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “speaking the truth in love.”

I’ve said this before and I will stand by it. The prophets of old were not fortune tellers - they were truth tellers. Sometimes they simply called it like they saw it - kind of like the way people use the phrase, “Just sayin’.” People sleeping on the street is wrong - just sayin’. Sometimes the prophets told people about the natural consequences of their behavior. Just the other day I heard my kids playing, and I could tell it was about to escalate into not playing. So, I kindly told them that their current course of action was not going to end well, and they chose another game - for the words of the prophet held a consequence they did not want to experience.

Then again, some of the prophets were also written after the fact (such as Mark’s story of John the Baptist) as a way to say, “I told you so.” I don’t mean that they were vindictive - more that they were able to interpret events in light of God’s activity.

And so it is for those of us who believe - we are here in order to interpret events in light of God’s activity. We are here to call the world into accountability and pull the emergency brake on the train before it goes too far! We are here to speak the truth in love with our words and our deeds!

That is the baptism that all who are baptized in the name of Christ have received! We don’t have to wait for it or fear the wilderness that we might be pushed into, because we are already there. For the Holy Spirit of God is constantly pushing us into trials, forcing truth from our lips, and calling us into community.

Why? God has called us together so that we might be a sent people - an Apostolic people sent by Jesus Christ. And God has called us together so that we might demonstrate the promise of living in God’s presence to others.

You know, I recently saw a website for a Christian University that guarantees you access to regular, two-way conversations with God. Call me crazy, but I would rather work to become the prophetic voice of God through my actions and relationships than worry about cornering God for a personal chat. I think people are thirsty out there. And I think that - with God’s help - we can do something about it. And to God be the glory for that - now and always, amen!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What’s In A Name?

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
January 15, 2012 - Epiphany (2B)
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
John 1:43-51

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.”

“I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

So goes the impassioned plea of Juliet into the darkness of night where it finds the response of Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2). Their agreement seals their fate as “star cross’d lovers” with a tragic end - to the shock and delight of audiences young and old for more than four hundred years and counting!

In this brief moment - through the risk of their conversation - they reflect the reality of the fact that we are so much more than we appear. The human creature is so very complex! That’s why the Psalms are so important to us - they reflect the visceral qualities of humanity at our best and even at our worst.

Psalm 139 has always been a favorite of mine. It reminds us that God knows every fiber of our being. Not only that, God knows our most intimate thoughts, and God is just as involved in our lives today as God was involved in creating us. I like to tell confirmation students that this Psalm reminds us that you were God’s idea - and a good one, too!

But then we have this idea that God is unknowable - unsearchable. That is becoming harder to imagine the more technological we become. Everything is searchable! We have search engines on our desktops, on our phones, in our laps, and in our ears almost 24/7. We have the ways, means, and the motivation to find things we have never wanted to find in the whole of human history!

Could God be less accessible than say - The History Of Dental Floss? Surely not. Yet texts like the ones we have received today sure can make it feel that way. How great it would be to have God speak your name! Or maybe God has spoken your name. Maybe it was when you were a child. Maybe it was after life had given you enough experiences to realize that you are participating in something larger than yourself. Maybe it was only after someone else heard your situation and said, “I think this is a God thing. You better listen up.”

That’s how it was for Samuel. Not just any boy - Samuel was an answered prayer for his barren mother, who agreed to give him back to the Lord if the Lord would allow her to have him. Samuel was the student of Eli, the old Priest whose son’s were abusing the faithful who came to make sacrifices in Shiloh. Samuel’s name means, “God has heard you.”

The thing that is really important here is not that God knew him by name, or that God used Eli to help him hear. What matters here, most of all, is that God was establishing the Prophetic Office before allowing the people to be ruled by a king. God was establishing the opportunity for God’s voice to be heard before the passions and politics of power could twist the truth out of proportion.

And what is the truth? The truth is that no matter what we do, God is sovereign. The truth is that God knows you. God knows the dear perfection that you owe without title - and you are God’s beloved. The truth is that God calls out to you, inviting you to be present, to listen, and to speak the truth to those who need to hear it most - those who want to believe they can be self-made, self-governed, and responsible to no one but themselves. The truth is that the person I need to talk the most sincerely to about his neglect of the truth is the guy I see in the mirror every day.

The truth is that the Gospel of John tells us that a Rabbi named Yahshua, whom we call Jesus, was walking along the Jordan River after his own baptism. John the Baptizer called out to others, telling them that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then his own disciple goes to follow this man. Philip gets his brother, and before Jesus takes them to Galilee he grabs his other buddy, Nathaniel.

We have no idea why all of these guys who are from Galilee just happen to be in the Jordan River area outside of Jerusalem. At least one of them was being instructed by John. There is no telling why Nathaniel reacted the way he did - saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It could have been a regional thing. Perhaps there was an old feud over resources.

Philip simply shrugs it off and says, “Come see” - thereby proving that Cajun Culture dates back to the time of Christ. Seriously though, “Come see” is a local delicacy for me. It’s one of those phrases I love to hear but can’t quite get the courage to try to make it feel natural to say. Of course, “Come see” is usually something said to children, but it is a powerful statement. It means, “I have proof.” It means, “I believe this is of value to you.” It means, “I want to share this with you.”

I love Jesus’ response. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” In other words - this guy is a straight shooter. He may not like me. I may not like him, but I can trust him.

What’s interesting about this is that there actually wasn’t an Israel at that time. There had not been one in generations. Sure, there was a succession of Jewish Kings. But the reality of a Jewish nation state named Israel had not been around for some time. So, calling him an Israelite was a way to cut through the differences. Not only that, Jesus had just been described to him as the one spoken of in the law and the prophets. As far as Nathaniel knew, that can mean only the restoration of Israel - not only the people, but the kingdom.

Even more interesting is the timing. Scholars believe this Gospel to be written around 70 CE - right around the first Jewish War and the destruction of the temple by Rome. That was also about the time that the Jewish King, Agrippa II - the last of the Herodians - was fleeing Jerusalem under the protection of Rome. Do you know where Agrippa went first? He went to Galilee.

So, you have to admit that it is in the least a little peculiar that members of the Judeo-Christian community who have seen the false King flee are now hearing about the true King following the same route. So Jesus tells Nathaniel that he has searched him and known him - when he sat down under a fig tree and when he rose up. Immediately he calls Jesus, “Rabbi, the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Of course John’s Gospel is not simply concerned with the Kingdom of Israel. It is concerned with the Kingdom of God.

And in the Kingdom of God, we understand that we are known not only for who we are but for whose we are. In the Kingdom of God we know that we are called to listen. In the Kingdom of God we are called to invite others to come and see. In the Kingdom of God we are invited to follow Jesus.

What is in a name? In every name there is an opportunity - even in yours, and even in mine. Thanks be to God. Amen!

Becoming Hospitality

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
Christmas Eve - December 25, 2011
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-20

A few days ago I was listening to some Christmas music and folding some clothes after the kids went to bed. Something vaguely Celtic was playing, and I happened to pick up a long sleeved shirt. For some reason that combination of culture and worn fabric made something in my soul lurch toward another climate - not just another climate, but also toward places with people that I have shared some particular experiences with.

There is something about this time of year that makes even the least sentimental of us consider our basic need for connection, and it makes us long for the familiar, for the proven, and for the people and places we love or long to be loved by. The littlest things can set us off. An ornament, a song, a smell, maybe even a cookie - these are a few of my favorite things.

These are the things we are told to remember when the dog bites and the bee stings. We simply remember our favor-ite things, and then we don’t feel...so-o-o bad! That feels good to sing, but it is not exactly good theology. It’s not terrible. It’s just a little lacking in substance, and maybe even a little self centered.

Still, familiar people and things and rituals seem to make the world make sense, even if only while you are with them. That is a good thing, and we need the hope this season and its rituals offer us. Sometimes they are even enough to get us through to the next one. Perhaps that is because there is always a sense of loss mingled with the joy and hope of this season. I don’t necessarily mean tragic loss - just the realization that what has been is no more.

And so we wrap ourselves in the quilt of memory and sit by the fire of hope, and we wait for the coming of Christ. Into this we receive the promise of the prophet Isaiah, the instruction of Paul, and the story the birth of Christ - the nativity. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is the most familiar, and sometimes it can be like wallpaper - just part of the scenery of Christmas.

Yet there is something so profound going on here that the axis of history pivots on this story. There is something so profound going on here that we really don’t want to see it for fear that it might even alter the course of our own lives.

For in this story, the power of God has been revealed in the weakness of a child. In this story the power of humanity has been revealed as having the ability to become a place of hospitality into which the Lord of Heaven and Earth might dwell.

The stumbling block in such an idea is that God only did this once through Jesus, and we only did it once through Mary. While there is truth in the claim that Jesus was God’s self revelation, I don’t believe God did this in order to hide behind the persona of Jesus. I believe that God came to be known to us through Jesus so that we might make God known to others.

There is also truth in the claim that Mary bore the son of God in such a way as no one else has or can, but again - I don’t believe that God did this in order to set a standard we cannot meet. I believe that Mary is, instead, someone who knew the difference between acting hospitably and becoming a place of hospitality for the one who welcomes us in when we are weak. Mary shows us what it means to be consumed by hope and led by God’s spirit - and by doing so she brought forth life in the midst of disease and rejection.

Then we have those shepherds - those marvelous shepherds! For some reason, God takes the ones who are on the bottom of the rung and has them become the witnesses to the birth of the Messiah - God’s Anointed One, the one who will restore Israel. Why on earth would God chose witnesses that no one would believe?

I think it is because we have already heard - and we always hear from - the expected voices. I believe it is because we are all a little broken in some way or another. I believe God speaks through shepherds because it is precisely the ones we think are worthless that have the power to teach us and even to heal us.

There is a young man named Jeffery who you do not know. He works for LARC, an employment and service agency for those with disabilities, whom we contract cleaning services from. He vacuums my office every Thursday. I’ve rarely heard him speak, though his smile goes from ear to ear. Often his co-workers shout his name when the routine gets disrupted. Routine is important to them. It is life affirming. I’ve never seen him frustrated though.

Jeffery has Down’s syndrome and is one of the few adults in my world who is shorter than me. One day we crossed in my office doorway, and he simply patted me on the shoulder and smiled. It was a simple gesture of approval and the only real moment of communication I’ve had with him in almost two years. Funny thing is - I really needed it that day. I didn’t know how much, but I needed it that day. For that moment - for that brief intentional encounter - I stood before the shepherd and heard about the Christ. For that moment, I was the one who had been walking in darkness and on whom light had shined.

The thing is, becoming a place of hospitality for God is really as simple as a pat on the shoulder. It is really as simple as realizing that “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” and then understanding that the grace of God causes us to look beyond ourselves, to be controlled by our desire to see and experience God in one another, and to expect God to reveal God’s self through the space we create within ourselves and between ourselves and others. You don’t have to become some kind of fanatic to do this, but it might mean letting go of some things in order to become open to others.

We see a lot of that here in our gift basket ministry, and - as our elves rub their tired fingers and toes and wonder if there is any way they could have done more -than 1010 baskets - it is important to remember the work of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. He is an author and speaker and a member of an intentional community of Christians who formed the Rutba House in Durham, North Carolina in 2003. Part of their function is to take in those in need. In a recent reflection he wrote the following, “However important our work may be, our ability to do it isn’t what makes us a community. We’re not a house of hospitality when we figure out how to take care of everyone who’s homeless. We’re a house of hospitality when we learn to wait, when we learn to open ourselves to grace, when we let love transform us, one relationship at a time....The good news is that a hospitality house isn’t something we muster up the courage to “do,” but something we’re invited to “be.” In waiting and opening ourselves to God, we become the sort of people who can see that Jesus has already slipped into our midst. Folks who get used to being with Jesus know better how to greet him when he comes knocking at the door.”

As we wait for the coming of the One who is with us, may we be transformed into bearers of God, into places of hospitality, and into a people moving from darkness into the light of Christ. And to God be the glory, both now and always. Amen!