Monday, December 28, 2015

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" ( a guest post by my husband, Mike,a retired United Methodist pastor)

Read Matthew 2:6-18

I like Christmas music, carols as well as "sounds of the season." One from the latter category that I always enjoy comes from the late Andy Williams: "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The lively, upbeat song highlights many of the things that bring joy to us at Christmas. You can hardly suppress a smile upon hearing it, even if you are having a "Blue Christmas" days as "The King" would have put it.

From October onward we gear up for this most wonderful time. The music, of course, as I have implied plays a major role, as do decorations, shopping, parties, special programs, parties, family get-togethers, etc. It almost seems un-American, if not un-Christian, not to feel that this really is
"the most wonderful time of the year."

Most of us know the familiar "Christmas Story" parts of which appear in the gospels, Matthew and Luke. While the joy experienced in the stories of Jesus' birth differs from the sentiments sung by Andy Williams, it is still there. However, that does not constitute everything recorded in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

In Matthew 2:16-18 which we tend to skip over for the most part, we have a downright horrible story. In a fit of anger at having been deceived by the wise men who did not return to tell him the whereabouts of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, the king ordered the slaughter of all children in and around Bethlehem who were two and under. The story ends with words from Jeremiah, "A voice was read in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more."

Talk about "pouring cold water" on "the most wonderful time of the year," this story does just that. Why did such a terrible story make it into the Bible? Who needs such a downer while we are in the midst of a time of celebration?

I will mention only one possible reason why the story remains timely for us. While most people enjoy
"this most wonderful time of the year," others struggle for variety of reasons: illness, loss of a loved one, broken relationships, unemployment, addictions, disappointments and the like. Such people do not experience the joy. Instead they feel full of pain, remorse, guilt and more. The carols and "sounds of the season" that bring comfort to us, either pass by them like so much noise or even worse open old or more recent wounds.

Keep that thought in mind as you move through these days. Be alert for those for whom this might not be "the most wonderful time of the year." Pray for them, speak words of comfort if you can, simply listen to them or give them a hug.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How Can This Be? ------ Mary's Hesitation then Consent

Luke 1:26-38 - "The angel came to her (Mary) and said, "Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you." The angel said to her, "Don't be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus."

"Mary said to the angel, "I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?"

"I am the Lord's servant," said Mary; "may it happen to me as you have said." And the angel left her.
(Good News Translation)


Do you ever wonder what Mary was doing when the angel informed her she was pregnant with Jesus? Artists, especially during the Renaissance depict Mary dressed in ornate, flowing robes, with detailed sewing o the sleeve cuffs and hem. Angels with large wings rest surround her.

Last year's cover of the November/December issue of The Upper Room, shows Mary wearing a white t-shirt, blue jumper, white socks and saddle shoes. Her medium-length brown hair was pulled back to a pony tail. She held a book while and angel stood close by.

I have always envisioned Mary wearing a patched robe, a long braid down her back and her hands covered with dough as she made bread. When an angel interrupted, she might have been thinking about sheep to tend later in the day or going to the market when the dough rose.

Her Hesitation

When Gabriel gave Mary the news about her pregnancy, she didn't reply, "Oh, I am so happy. I've always wanted to be a mother." Instead, she responded, "I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?"

Gabriel encouraged Mary by saying the Holy Spirit will come and God's power will rest upon her (verse 35). These are words of God's provision for Mary in the days ahead.

In the midst of her astonishment, fear and surprise (verse 29, 34) Mary is assured of God's companionship. She will not go through these days of unexpected pregnancy alone (verse 35). Regardless what comments about her condition may come, she realizes God is with her.

Often viewed as a model of obedience, Mary's question indicated uncertainty and confusion. The angel gave Mary more information about how the pregnancy would occur (verse 35), even sharing details about her cousin, Elizabeth's pregnancy in advanced age as an additional example of what God can accomplish (verses 36 and 37).

Mary's Consent

Mary consents by saying, "I am the Lord's servant. May it happen to me as you have said." (verse 38)

We don't know how much time passed between Mary being deeply troubled by the angel's news (verse 29), her question (verse 34) and finally her acceptance (verse 38). Despite the shocking news she received, she was able to sense God's presence as she realized in these moments the mission God gave her.

Our Hesitation

As unexpected circumstances come our way, we may feel a little like Mary did when Gabriel told her she was pregnant. When serious illness hits a seemingly healthy person, when relationships are impaired, when a beloved family member or friend dies suddenly, when a job loss or relocation is announced, we can feel troubled and question, "How can  this be?"

My Hesitation

I remember two different occasions when Mike received word that he was being assigned to another church at the exact moment I received long-awaited, desirable part-time job offers where he currently was serving. One job was to work with pre-school children, the other at the county hospital. I'd waited several years for both positions

Eventually, I had to decline the opportunity to work with pre-school children and hand in my resignation at the hospital after only working five months.

I cried out, "How can this be? I've waited patiently for these positions, and now we have to move."

My Consent

Seeking God daily through prayer and reading eventually enabled me to give God my disappointment and receive peace. God's generosity followed after both moves, I was able to find employment in our new city.

Through prayer, we offer ourselves to God acknowledging we need God's help to grow through the many life challenges that prompt the question, "How can this be?"

Our Consent

With God's companionship, we can join Mary with acceptance and say, "I am yours, God. You are with me all of the time and through whatever I am experiencing."

Prayer: God, how many times we cry out, "How can this be?" when we struggle or when we receive unexpected blessings! Help us trust your constant companionship for all parts of life. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Basket Name

Sue Monk Kidd's latest book, The Invention of Wings, is about a young slave, Hetty, and her mother, Charlotte, a seamstress who works for a wealthy family in Charleston. At the beginning of the book, Hetty explains that a family who owns a pregnant slave names the baby. However, when the mother looks at her child resting in a basket where slave babies rest while their mothers work, a name would come based on what the baby looked like, on what was happening in the world, or a personality trait the mother noted.

Hetty was given the basket name, "Handful", by her mother. As the story evolves, Handful is shown to be a strong-willed determined little girl who grew into her mother's perceptions of her character. Hetty is referred to as Handful throughout the book.

Most infants today don't rest in baskets, but in crib or little seats that rock electronically. Perhaps fathers and mothers today who watch their infants sleep or play get an idea of his or her personality and find a nickname to use reflecting what they see in the child. Sometimes nicknames stick and the child is called by this name rather than the given name.

When Jesus was born, we are told Mary laid him to rest in a manger, a container of straw for animals - not the most sanitary place for an infant. When the angel, Gabriel, came to tell Mary about her pregnancy, Gabriel also revealed he baby's God-given name, Jesus.

I wonder if Jesus also had a "basket name" or "manger name" given by Mary and Joseph as they watched him during those first few weeks of life?

Jesus came to be known by many names as his ministry evolved. Just like "Handful" described the per Godsonality of one of the main characters in Sue Monk Kidd's book, the names given Jesus by those who wrote the Bible identify his character as "Prince of Peace;" "Good Shepherd;" "Bread of Life." These names go deeply into Jesus' core and give us metaphorical ways to relate to God's son.

There are over two hundred names for Jesus listed in a recent Google search including the following:

  -- Lamb of God
  -- Holy Child
 -- Alpha and Omega
 -- Blessed of God
 -- Bright and Morning Star

"Bread of Life" is my "basket" or "manger" name for Jesus. For decades, baking biscuits has been one of my favorite activities. When our kitchen table was full with two little girls, I made a batch of biscuits twice a week to accommodate the appetites of our family. Bringing biscuits to others, something I like to do, conveys the love of Jesus and represents the name of Jesus to which I connect.

Sometime during this holiday season, you will see a nativity set in someone's front yard, at church, in a store or in your home. Pause for a moment and if you can find a small set, hold in your hand the figure of Jesus resting in a manger.

---   What name of Jesus from the list above do you connect with most?

---   Why does that name have meaning for you?

---   How can spending time reflecting on this name deepen your experience of Christmas?

As you hold Jesus, what "manger name do you give him? What story is behind the name?

Prayer: Jesus, you came to this world and were placed in a manger. The "bread of life" rested in a food bed for animals. However you come to us in the name we call you, we hold you dear as you hold us close always from our "basket days" to our endings. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sending My Heart in a Box

My heart goes in one of those postal service priority mailboxes a few times a year when I send one of our daughters, Sarah and Anna, their birthday presents.

Recently, my heart entered a box for a different reason. In July 1978, when I was eight months pregnant with Sarah, Mike was one of the pastors at the First United Methodist Church in New Castle, Indiana. One day we drove several boxes of donated clothing to an organization, Church World Service, located in Nappanee, a city in the northern part of the state.

After we delivered the boxes, we visited the agency gift shop that sold items from third world countries. We decided to purchase our baby's first gift that day, a wooden nativity set made in the Holy Land. Not knowing our baby's gender didn't matter as we prayed that the representation of Jesus' birth would become a treasured part of our child's holiday season.

Through the decades, the small nativity was displayed on the kitchen table next to the Advent wreath. Sarah learned the story of our travels that day, as I told her each year when we put out the decorations.

Sarah is getting married next May. Deciding this year that it was time for the nativity set to go to Sarah, I carefully wrapped it in white tissue paper, and put in in the postal service box.

Holding the nativity one more time, looking at the wooden animals, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, I remembered our experience that warm summer day, looking through the store trying to find "the perfect gift" for our child. I thought about all of the parsonages where the manger was displayed.

Now that Sarah is getting married and will soon have her own home, it's time for the nativity purchased with great love 37 years ago to begin a new life and start a new history with Sarah and Ryan.

Prayer: God, thank you for a symbol that represents the joy I felt carrying Sarah as I imagined Mary's joy giving birth to your Son. Bless this nativity as it moves to a new home, carrying my love and blessing for a Merry Christmas to Sarah and Ryan. Amen.