Sunday, December 30, 2018

Eight Questions for the New Year

Before you put away the ornaments from the Christmas tree, file recipes of food you only prepare for the holidays, and organize your presents, get a sheet of paper and a pen to record a few thoughts.

Reflect on experiences during the month of December and write your thoughts. Consider these questions:

     1. Where did I see God?

     2. How did I experience God?

     3. When did I offer God's love?

Keep a copy of your reflections in a place where you can reference them throughout 2019, perhaps in the spring after Easter, during July, and in October as preparations for next Christmas begin.

The answers that come from the questions can reveal the fullness of God's presence as well as give form to changes you might want to implement during the next holiday.

Additional reflections for the new year are an examination of your life and priorities. Responding to each can offer cleansing and direction in the new year.

     4. For what am I longing?

     5. What themes keep recurring in my life?

     6. Where am I struggling?

     7. What is most life-giving to me?

     8. What is least life-giving?

Jesus spent time going away for prayer. Although we do not know the content of his reflections, he gave us a model of the importance of being still with God.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, at the beginning of a new year, help us collect our experiences with you and others from this Christmas season. Guide us as we use these eight questions to realize your presence with us to offer new energy and focus with and guide us in service to you. Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Basket Name

Sue Monk Kidd is one of my favorite authors. Years ago she began writing for Guideposts and Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Her books include When The Heart Waits, The Mermaid Chair, and The Secret Life of Bees which was made into a movie in 2008.

Sue is from the south and her writing reflects the culture and traditions from that part of the country.

Her most recent 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 slaves babies rest while their mothers work, a name might come to her 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 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 cribs or little seats that rock electronically. Perhaps mothers and fathers today who watch their infants sleep or play get an idea of his or her personality and find a nick-name to call the baby, 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 of her pregnancy, Gabriel also revealed the baby's God-given name.

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

Jesus came to be known by many names as his ministry evolved. Just like "Handful" described the personality 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: "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.

Sometimes during this holiday seas, 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?

For Your Reflection

     - Write your "manger name" for Jesus on a piece of paper. Place the paper in your Bible, on your desk or in a place where you can refer to it during the early  months of the new year. What additional thoughts come as you linger with Jesus' "manger name"?

Prayer - Jesus, you came to the world and were placed in a manger. The "Bread of Life" resting 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 ending. Amen.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sending My Heart in A Box

My heart goes in one of those postal service priority mail boxes a few times a year, when I send Sarah and Anna their birthday presents or other surprises.

Recently, my heart entered a box once again. In July, 1978, when I was eight months pregnant with Sarah, Mike  was serving the First United Methodist Church in New Castle, Indiana. One day, we drove to Nappanee, a city in the northern part of the state, to deposit several boxes of clothing donated to an agency, Church World Service.

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 travel that day, as I told her each year when we put out the decorations.

Now that Sarah is married and has her own home, it's time for the nativity, purchased with great love 40 years ago, to begin a new life with Sarah and her husband, Ryan.

Holding the nativity one more time, looking at the wooden animals, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, I remembered our experience that July 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. Then, I carefully wrapped it in white tissue paper, and placed it in the postal service box, ready to mail.

For Your Reflection:

1. Are there objects or momentos of Christmas that hold special meaning to you?

2. What is the history of the object?

Prayer: God, thank you for a symbol that represents the joy I felt carrying Sarah as well as 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.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

(Guest post by Mike Reed)

Read Matthew 2:16-18

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 you are having a "Blue Christmas" day 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, 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 both Gospels of Matthew and Luke. While the joy experienced in the two 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 of 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 heard 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 a 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 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 or simply listen to them or give them a hug.

Prayer: "The most wonderful time of the year," can be a misleading phrase as challenges we face often do not take a break during the month of December. Hope can be hard to find amidst the lyrics and melody of this song. Remembering God's presence always, even when it seems "everyone" is rejoicing and celebrating grounds us  for these days. God is near, surrounding us with love always. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mary's Hesitation - Then Consent

Read Luke 1:26-38

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

The cover of the November/December, 2014, 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 into a ponytail. She held a book, while an angel was next to her.

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

Her Hesitation

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

Despite her astonishment and surprise, Gabriel gave Mary encouragement by saying that the Holy Spirit will come and God's power will rest upon her (Luke 1:35). These are words of God's provision for Mary and hope for the days ahead.

Even though Mary experienced strong emotions (verse 29, 34) during the angel's visit - she's surprised, troubled and fearful - Mary has the assurance of God's companionship. She will not go through these days of unexpected pregnancy alone (verse 35). Comments about her condition may come, but that doesn't shake her because she finally 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

We  may often feel like Mary when Gabriel told her she was pregnant, as unexpected circumstances come our way. When serious illness comes to a seemingly healthy person, when relationships are impaired, when a beloved family member or friend dies, when a job loss or relocation happens, we can be 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 and I received desirable part-time job offers. One job was with preschool children, the other at the county hospital. I waited several years for both positions. When Mike told me we were moving, I had to decline the opportunity with preschool children, and hand in my resignation at the hospital after working five months.

My Consent

I cried out, "How can this be? I've waited patiently for these positions, and now we have to move? Seeking God daily through prayer and reading eventually enabled me to give God my disappointment and receive peace. God's generosity was evident because 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 challenges life brings, prompting the question, "How can this be?"

Our Consent

Eventually, 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."

For Your Reflection

1. When in your life have you said to God, "How can this be?"

2. How did you respond?

3. What was the outcome?

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