A Good Place to Be

Somewhere between Jacks and Shade Mountain there is a plot of mesic-hydric forest that gets crunchy underfoot this time of year. The sun is shining but snow still lies in shaded places. A dog named Duke ran through it with Rennan one day and with Mya the next. (Another dog Brooks, a Dachshund, tried to keep up). Duke went to the vet yesterday. It’s a busy week to be a German Shepherd.

We fill the feeders with seed and suet. The nuthatches are the first to find the fresh stuff. They dance back and forth on the feeder and a nearby tree. A large hornet nest used to hang from a tree in the back yard. It has literally disintegrated. A coyote, a fisher, fox, deer, and turkey have appeared on the trail camera. Three deer have been harvested this month and there is backstrap waiting in the freezer (yum).

A new composter is standing next to the older one. I toss in some finished compost, leftover grass clippings, straw, kitchen scraps, and coffee grounds from Starbucks (appropriately labeled Christmas Blend”). That should get the new batch started in hopes it will be ready for spring. Two composters mean more compost which means better soil which means more veggies and fruit and flowers.

Skeletal deciduous trees and evergreens surrounded by splotches of snow remind us what time of year it is. Bulbs and seed lie under the surface waiting for warmer weather. What will it all look like a few months from now? A large rosemary plant sits in a container at the entrance. Karissa, Joel, Ellie, Keightley, Nic and I enter to eat Mom’s vegetable soup and homemade rolls. The place is decorated for the holiday. There is a fire in the fireplace and a movie on television. This is a good place to be on a December day.

A Friday Field Trip

On a Friday, I can normally be found in the library at Messiah College where I try to work on my dissertation. But last Friday, I did something different. I took a field trip to Philadelphia and I rode the train. I know that some don’t think of the train as a novelty, but it was my first time.

The adventure started well before I even got on board. For one, the parking situation near the station is not easy to navigate. Finding a spot in close proximity to the station in the dark presents some challenges (I should have done a little recon beforehand). Once I made my way to the station, I discovered a knife in my pocket and imagined the worst. After unsuccessfully attempting to persuade a vendor and the baggage department to hold it for me, I decided to run it back to the car. I considered hiding it in a hedgerow or a flower pot on the way but didn’t want to risk someone finding it before I returned. Oh well, some early morning cardio before a train ride can be exhilarating.

Finally, I received a ticket and boarded the train where I am amused that a gentleman dressed like he belongs on the Polar Express scans my ticket. The lady across the aisle had set up an entire work station in her seat and the seat next to her. The girl in front of me was excited about her first week long trip to New York City. The gentleman who boarded in Lancaster and sat next to me spent his time reading a novel on his phone. The stop at Lancaster reminded me that Rachel and Samuel Lapp had taken this same route in the movie The Witness. I look out the window to see if I can find Daniel Hochleitner riding alongside the track trying to impress passengers while standing in his buggy.

At 30th Street Station, I see Walter Hancock’s brilliant statue of Michael the Archangel lifting a soldier. The statue honors PA railroad workers who served in World War II. Again, I am reminded of the movie and am glad I see no one who looks like Danny Glover. By chance, I am there for the tree lighting that was followed by a chorus of Silent Night that echoed through the large hall as multiple strangers joined in. A barista from Pret A Manger generously gave me a free iced tea.

I met with a friend who has a great deal of expertise in systemic thinking and resulting therapies. I have sat in his trainings on multiple occasions and am better on account of it. He has a casualness about him as well as a clarity that makes training enjoyable. As it turns out, he also has some expertise on Philadelphia and gives me some pointers for my brief stay.

Walking down Market Street revealed Dickens style decorations in the windows of a bank and modern décor in the lobby of a luxury apartment building. The street was full of corner vendors and food trucks. There was an area called The Porch that had swings on it – porch swings right in the middle of the city (and people were using them). An older gentleman smoking a large cigar in an older suit with wide lapels and a thick tie was talking loudly on his phone outside. He looked like he belonged in a classic Christmas movie. A man huddled against a building was asking for coins. I tossed in all the change I had and he blessed me for it.

Before I knew it, I was boarding the train again for the trip home. My train adventure to the big city was over. I feel like I had a cultural experience. The next time you see me, you will probably think I am more refined than I was before.

A Donkey, a Shepherd and a Little Town Take Us to Christmas

We spent the early part of Advent reading and discussing implications from three Old Testament texts. It is a good time of year to remember what the prophets said long before anyone was thinking about Christmas. Yet, these old texts clearly stated that something was coming. Which makes them great conversation during the time of year when we celebrate Advent (something is coming).

Our texts came from Numbers 24, Ezekiel 34, and Micah 5. We read about Balaam (and his wise donkey) blessing the people of Israel with “I see Him, but not now… a star shall come forth from Jacob.” We read Ezekiel’s rebuke of Israel’s rulers and his declaration that “I will set over them one shepherd, My servant David.” We read Micah’s claim “But as for you Bethlehem, Ephrathah… from you One will go forth from me to be ruler in Israel.” So, of course we called our study “A Donkey, a Shepherd, and a Little Town Take Us to Christmas.”

In an effort to emphasize that these texts belong to a larger story, we placed each of them within two other texts. We hoped that an earlier text and a later text would help us to see the storyline take shape. We read the Numbers text in between Genesis 12 where God reveals the seriousness of blessing and cursing His people and Matthew 2 where Magi (like Balaam) enter the story of the people of God. Interestingly, Balaam nearly quotes the Genesis blessing. Equally interesting, King Balak and King Herod both attempt but fail to persuade the Magi.

We read Ezekiel’s text in between II Samuel 12 where Nathan shares a parable about a ruler who does not shepherd his people well and John 10 where Jesus talks about how the Good Shepherd does look after His sheep. Finally, we read Micah’s text in between I Samuel 16 where the first king from Bethlehem was chosen and he was “least” among others and again, Matthew 2 where Micah is quoted in the Gospel when it is revealed where the king will be born.

Although I found this to be both challenging and enjoyable (at times, even exciting), it is my hope that these times have helped us to prepare for the coming of Christ. That we can see how God has acted in human history, acts in human history, and will act in human history. That we will be reminded of our own role in God’s intervention to bless the world through His people.

The Spirits of Christmas

We can’t get to Christmas without traveling through Luke chapter one. And we can’t read Luke chapter one without noticing how active the Holy Spirit is. While preparing for Christmas we find that John the Baptizer, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all interacting with the Spirit. In fact, Luke wants us to know they are filled with the Spirit. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is perhaps most interested in the Spirit. By the time we get to the book of Acts, it almost seems that the Spirit becomes his primary character in the narrative.

In contrast to Luke, Mark’s Gospel places some emphasis on darker spirits. Reading Mark, one is often in the company of evil spirits. It is interesting that the gospels suggest supernatural forces, both holy and evil, desire to inhabit humans. Perhaps a reading of the gospel should prompt the question, “Who will inhabit humans?” “Will it be evil forces or will it be the spirit of God?”

Evil spirits desire to inhabit humans. But it appears they have some problems with what they really want. In Mark five a man living among the tombs had an evil spirit and was constantly gashing himself with stones. In Mark nine it is an evil spirit that sometimes slams the host, a young boy, to the ground.  At other times it throws him into fire and the water to destroy him. It seems that evil spirits living in the host also have some desire to destroy the host. This may be the dilemma of evil spirits. They lack wisdom. They cannot become a unity and work with their host. They are fractured and foolish. They are far different from the spirit of God.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit also desires to dwell in humans. But here we find a different story. The spirit of God desires life. The spirit of God strengthens and nurtures. This becomes more obvious to us in Acts chapter two and afterward. Yet, here, chapters earlier, we find the Spirit entering humans. Luke chapter one tells of life entering a barren situation. Life enters where it is thought to be impossible. Before we get to Christmas. Before Mary gives birth and wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes. Before we learned that shepherds were watching flocks by night. Before we hear the angels sing Gloria in excelsis. Before we get to Luke chapter two and the birth of the newborn king, we find four people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is no small thing. The story of Christmas is the story that history is changing. This is a story about God on the move. An announcement that a new kingdom is taking shape. There is a light in the darkness. God is bringing life into an arena where there was death. Christmas is coming. Hang onto your hat.


A Reading for Christmas Eve

In the days of Caesar Augustus

Joseph and Mary went to the city of David

Mary gave birth to a son

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes

She laid him in a manger

An angel came with good tidings

This child was Christ the Lord!

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of Jesus birth. We light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

Tonight, we light the Christ candle and we are reminded that he is still God with us!

A Counter Politic

Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

A Reading for Advent Four

In the Beginning was the Word

The Word was With God

The Word was God

All Things were Made by Him

Including a World that He so Loved

He was a Light in that World

And He so Loved the World

He Became Flesh and Made His Dwelling with Us

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of this Good News. Today we light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

A Reading for Advent Three

In a season when we talk of songs and angels and miracles, we are also reminded of struggles and challenges. But during Advent we are reminded that nothing is impossible with God. As we walk through this season, we hear the joy that comes with good tidings. We are reminded that the world changed at Christmas.

We light the first candle as a reminder of the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle as a reminder of the peace that comes with knowing that God has always desired to be with us. Today, we light the third candle with joy as we receive the good news about Jesus.

A Reading for Advent Two

Behold! The virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel. And we will know that God s with us. The God of Abraham is with us! The God of David is with us! A child shall be born and we will know that God is with us! The Good News tells us that more than anything – God desires to be with us!

We light the first candle to remind us to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Today we will light the second candle and are reminded that from the beginning, God has always desired to be with us.

A Reading for Advent One

Reader 1 – Behold!

Reader 2 – Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – I am sending my messenger!

Reader 2 – Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – There is a voice crying in the wilderness!

Reader 2 – It is saying, prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – Make your paths Straight!

Reader 2 – and Prepare for the Lord

Reader 1 – Get Ready!

Reader 2 – And straighten up!

Both readers – Prepare for the Lord

We light the first candle of Advent and remember that the Old Testament prophet told us about the importance of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord. We remember that the New Testament messenger tells us about the importance of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Today we are reminded again to be ready for the coming of the Lord.