Monday, December 23, 2019

The Sheep Give Birth

Conner Prairie is a living history museum located five minutes from my house. The popular vacation spot is a village where costumed interpreters recreate life in 1829. Even though I've visited Conner Prairie many times, participated in numerous programs, even volunteered as a seamstress for a few months, I always enjoy watching the village change through the seasons.

Each spring the animal barn is filled with bulging-bellied mothers waiting to give birth. Goats, cows and sheep are nesting in anticipation of new life.

Last May I came to the animal barn excited to see what was new. I noticed a mother sheep resting in a corner of the barn almost buried in straw.

"Why does the sheep have so much straw around her?" I asked the volunteer.

"She is preparing to give birth. The straw keeps the dust settled so when the lambs are born, they do not aspirate dust, which could lead to difficulty breathing and possible death."

Reflecting on this lesson from the barn later in the day, I thought about Mary on the night Jesus was born. I believe there were more preparations for the sheep about to deliver than there were for Mary. Surely there was dust in the stable where Jesus was born. Straw, animals and dust go together. I wondered if Jesus aspirated any dust following his birth.

On the surface, Mary's preparation for Jesus' birth seemingly looks sloppy and haphazard - riding on a donkey during the ninth month of pregnancy, walking around Bethlehem trying to find a place to stay, eventually settling in a stable for animals. All of these circumstances are quite different from preparations available to expectant parents today who start planning for birth soon after a pregnancy is discovered.

Jesus' birth was really the culmination of Mary and Joseph's whole lives. Both knew God, both had hearts open to God's leading in confusing circumstances and both wholeheartedly gave themselves to God with faith and trust. Jesus' birth was not completely a beginning, but an ending and beginning for two persons who walked closely with God.

The workers in the barn at Conner Prarie prepared the area so the mother sheep could birth her lambs safely, but the preparation that brought Mary and Joseph to a similar place - a barn and a stable - came from spending years of time with God, seeking God at all times and celebrating - even in confusion and uncertainty about what the future would bring - God in person.

Prayer: God, you appear in many places, even as unusual as birthing your son in a stable filled with animals and covered with dust and straw. Guide our seeking and trust in you so we can emulate Mary and Joseph, who took confusing news and responded with faith. Amen.

For Your Reflection:

How do you prepare for the birth of Christ - in your home, spiritually with friends, in your church, in the community? What new practices can become traditions to welcome Christ in your heart?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?

Mike Reed wrote the article for this week.

Read Matthew 2:16-18

I like Christmas music, carols as well as "sounds of the season." One from the latter category 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 have a "Blue Christmas" day as Elvis 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, paties, family get-togethers, etc. It almost seenms un-American if not un-Christian not to feel this really is "the most wonderful time of the year!"

Most of us know the familiar "Christmas story" parts of which appear in both the 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 lamentations. Rachel weeping for her chidren; 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 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 though 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. Remember 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 8, 2019

From What Perspective?

Many characters are involved in the Christmas narrative - even some inanimate objects. Here are a few I've identified:

    Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the innkeeper, the sheep, the shepherds, the donkey, the manger, the stable, townspeople, others walking to Bethlehem, the star, the kings, angels, other animals, adults and children going by the stable, Simeon and Anna.

From what perspective would you have liked to witness the birth of Christ? Choose one or more of these persons/animals/objects and reflect on their placement in the Christmas story. Use these questions as a guide:

1. What thoughts guided your selection?
2. How do you picture/imagine your choice?
3. Where is your choice placed and how do they move? For example, the shepherds start in the fields and move to the manger.
4. What type of interaction would your choice have with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus?

My Choice

I chose the donkey because this animal could hear all of the conversations between Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem, during their time in the stable, and as they left for Egypt. The donkey would have been a wonderful reporter of the most intimate remarks before and after the day Jesus was born, writing an interesting and inspiring account of their travels.

For Your Reflection

In what ways can a change in perspective affect your experience of Christmas?

Prayer: God, we see so many people, animals and objects part of the Christmas story. Let us enter these scriptures so we too can become present to that day and time when Jesus was born. Amen.             

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Cancel Christmas?

(I wrote the following article which  appeared in the Indianapolis Star on Sunday, December 23, 2012, nine days after the shootings in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. At the time, I was providing occasional commentaries for the religion section of the paper.)

I recently awakened earlier than usual and went to my desk where I pray and write each morning. The sky was dark, so I could not see the woods behind my house or watch the squirrels and birds. I am used to light and activity in the woods to help center in God. I was not expecting darkness.

No one expects darkness. The children and teachers who gathered a week ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, did not expect darkness when they left their homes earlier in the day.

Mary's Words Relate to Newtown

When the angel came to Mary telling her she would become pregnant with God's son, Mary replied, "How can this be?"

As word of the mass killing spread in Newtown, across the nation and world, many hearts joined Mary's question, "How can this be?"

Cancel Christmas

I read a comment in the Indianapolis Star shortly after the tragedy, some people in Newtown wanted to cancel Christmas, while others already had removed outside decorations.

Cancel Christmas? Cancel the time when Christians everywhere remember the birth of God's son, Jesus? Cancel the day marking the arrival of the person called 'the light of the world;' 'the bright morning star;' 'the one who in moments of deepest darkness can bring hope, love, companionship, courage, perseverance, comfort and light?' Cancel Christmas ... when we need all parts of Jesus more than ever?

God Is With Mary

Mary spent some time thinking about the angel's words. The angel reminded Mary, "God is with you."

The angel reminds us, we are not alone; God is with us even in darkness.

I continued writing at my desk in darkness, until first light appeared. I could see trees and hear birds. Another natural cycle of darkness and light was complete.

Resolving darkness for those who mourn in Newtown may be a life-long cycle taking different forms.

Celebrating Christmas - the birth of the one who brings light, love and light - can be a hopeful reminder no one ever walks through darkness alone.

May the message Jesus brings be celebrated in Newtown to the fullest glory next week and in all years to come.

Prayer: Lord in your mercy let your presence come to all who feel like the circumstances of their lives are filled with darkness, without light. We are reminded in John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out." May these words be our hope and strength always, as we seek you, resting in the manger. Amen.