Monday, December 31, 2007

BIKE HIKE LOG

Dist: 15.4 mi. Avg spd: 16.1 Cadence: 88. Conditions: 38 degrees, sunny; I squeezed in this early afternoon ride before a predicted change in weather that is supposed to bring freezing rain and snow by early this evening. Route: Eagle Creek Park and north Lafayette Rd to 86th St and return.

Ride notes: I'm trying to follow through on my intention to ride 1,000 miles between December 29 and February 8. That would be half the distance we rode through India during this same time frame a year ago. That's 39 days, so I'll need to pedal 25.6 miles per day to meet that goal. It's not very likely I'll reach that goal, but I will make an attempt to approach it. Riding outside as weather permits and inside when it's too cold, snowy, icy, or wet, I can put in some significant miles between now and February 8.
REFLECTIONS OF INDIA - BICYCLE REPAIRMAN
December 31, 2006 - To Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu

A SOUL FEAST. Pedaling along Indian roads is a feast for the eyes and soul. Taking in what is unusual becomes usual. Before long, you come to expect nothing less than another encounter that is beyond anything within range of normal in Western mentality. I was impressed by rich colors in women's dress, by great banyan trees, vast rice fields, hard working laborers, deep poverty, ingenuity and gracious hospitality.

NEW YEAR'S EVE. After riding all day, we spent New Year's Eve in Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu We were guests at a school for deaf children that is operated by the Church of South India. We stayed on the second floor of dorm with a balony overlooking the main street, from which we could observe the New Year's Eve revelry. The evening is celebrated much the same as it is in America. We were awakened throughout the night by the sound of fireworks.

BICYCLE REPAIR. We strolled through a market in Palayamkottai and came across this bicycle repairman. I watched him repair a flat inner tube without taking the wheel off the bike. I'd never seen that before. His repair shop was just a place on the ground with his few tools and supplies around him. Simple. He must have been good, for his services were in great demand.

TRACK OUR TREK. Explore our 6-week, 2,000-mile bicycle journey from the southern tip of India to New Delhi, December 29, 2006-February 8, 2007 at http://bicycleindia2007.blogspot.com/ and offer support for rebuilding Umri Christian Hospital at http://www.bikeindia.org/
SEVEN SWANS A SWIMMING
A Reflection for the Seventh Day of Christmas

"On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me… seven swans a swimming."

Seven swans a swimming: Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1. prophecy, 2. ministry/serving, 3. teaching, 4. exhortation/encouragement, 5. giving, 6. leading, and 7. compassion

Scripture: Psalm 133; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31

HALF WAY. We are half way on our spiritual journey to Epiphany. Thus far, we have received six precious gifts:
1) Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh.
2) The Old and New Testaments.
3) Faith, hope and love.
4) The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
5) The Pentateuch or Torah, and
6) The 6 days of creation.

KEEPS ON GIVING. What are we doing with these invaluable gifts? Or, what are these gifts doing in us? These are not the kind of gifts that lose their luster or wear out. We may lose interest in them, but they never lose interest in us. These Christmastide gifts are ones that keep on giving, ever beckoning, ever inviting us to receive them afresh and to be transformed.

GIFT UPON GIFT. Go ahead, open the seventh gift. What is it? Oh, it is a gift! What is inside that gift? Oh, another gift! And what is inside THAT gift? Hey, another gift! And another. And another. And another. And still another. You get the feeling that you could keep opening boxes inside of boxes, gift upon gift. Such is the multiplicity and diversity of spiritual gifts given by God.

EMPOWERING. The specific gifts recalled on the seventh day of Christmas since the sixteenth century are those listed in Romans 12: Prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, compassion. Many more could be named. But whatever the gift, it is vital to know this: spiritual gifts are given for the sake of empowering people of faith to join God in sharing Good News, bearing grace, and making real the anticipated Reign of God.

COMMUNITY-BUILDING GIFTS. The spiritual gifts described in Romans 12, as well as in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere throughout the Epistles, are essential gifts for forming, sustaining, and extending community. Spiritual gifts are about community. Not about personal advancement. Not about possessing. A spiritual gift is not a spiritual gift unless it is selflessly shared. A community will be a thriving and vital community when graciously given gifts are freely and strategically shared. What better follow-up to Christmas than for gifts, great and small, to be turned toward serving and building up the community?

USEFUL THOUGH LESS DESIRABLE. It has become an inadvertent tradition in our household to keep a few opened gifts on the skirt around our Christmas tree for days after the 25th. Big gifts get whisked away, played with, put on, plugged in. But to this day a few small ones remain under the tree: a box of fireplace matches, a bottle of cologne, a bag of potpourri, a couple of games, a basket of crafts, a book, a flashlight, a quote-a-day calendar. Not expensive or necessarly the most desirable gifts, but useful ones just the same. They remind me of the diversity and usefulness of spiritual gifts, particularly less desirable ones.

KNOWN IN ACTION. Like the faith, hope, and love received on the third day of Christmas, the gifts we receive today are spiritually perceived, inwardly apprehended, and entirely relational. Perhaps we will never know our gifts, or what impact on a relationship, neighborhood, church, or community we can have until we start to serve, to give, to lead, to show mercy, to teach, to encourage, to declare what is burning in our hearts. Why not start today?

DIG IN. Read more and engage today's journaling exercise; also, access all 13 installments of Living the Twelve Days of Christmas: A Spiritual Journey

Sunday, December 30, 2007

REFLECTIONS OF INDIA - A TSUNAMI-RESPONSE YOUTH HOSTEL
December 30, 2006 - Anadapuram, Tamil Nadu

RIDING TO A YOUTH HOSTEL. I distinctly remember these two little girls at the youth hostel in Anandapuram, Tamil Nadu, India. After pedaling 75 miles from Nagercoil (via Kanniyakumari and Cape Comorin--the southern tip of India), we rode our bikes onto their campus on December 29. We spent the evening and enjoyed their singing, dancing and drama the next day before continuing our journey toward Bangalore.

TSUNAMI REPONSE. Many of the 200+ children who live at the youth hostel are part of families that suffered the full impact of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. This Free Methodist hostel expanded quickly in response to the tsunami. Children live free of charge at the youth hostel (thanks to those who sponsor children for $21 per month through International Child Care Ministries) and attend local public schools. They return to their families for holidays and summer break. The level of care and Christian witness here is truly admirable. Photo by Joe James

TRACK OUR TREK. Explore our six-week, 2,000-mile bicycle journey from the southern tip of India to New Delhi, December 29, 2006-February 8, 2007 at http://bicycleindia2007.blogspot.com/ and offer support for Umri Christian Hospital at http://www.bikeindia.org/
SIX GEESE A LAYING
A Reflection for the Sixth Day of Christmas

"On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… six geese a laying."

Six geese a laying = Six days of creation

Scripture: Psalm 139; Genesis 1:1-2:3; Colossians 1:15-23; 1 John 1:1-4

CREATION...FROZEN. We have arrived near the end of the earth’s 2007th cycle around the sun since the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. These are the shortest, darkest days of the year in the northern hemisphere. Plant life is latent in frozen land and water. Many animals hibernate or have migrated to warmer climes. In Indiana, we are living the carol: "In the bleak midwinter, Frosty wind made moan, Earth stood cold as iron, Water like a stone." What a time to receive our True Love’s sixth round of Christmas gifts: Six days of creation.

YIELD TO THE MYSTERY. Today’s gifts are as mysterious and wonderful as a goose laying an egg and a live gosling hatching from it. Who can fathom the miracle of life? Four times I have assisted and watched our children be delivered and draw their first breaths. Four times all that is rational and scientific and explainable has been tearfully eclipsed by wonder and mystery and sacredness. I sing with Michael Card: "Give up on your pondering and fall down on your knees."

DARE TO PERCEIVE THE WORLD AS GOD'S. If you want to argue for or against evolution or scientific creationism, you’ve lost my interest. If you need to try to reduce the incomprehensible and grand process of the formation of life into an argument for six literal days, you’ve missed the point. If you need to try to prove that what we know as life just happened by chance, my heart goes out to you. The invitation today is not about proving or arguing or convincing or taking sides. The invitation today is to receive all life as sacred, to dare to perceive the world as God’s, to look unto Jesus as the Apostle John looked unto him: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim."

ROOTED IN GOD AS SOURCE OF LIFE. Light. Sky and atmosphere. Land and seas, plants and trees. Sun by day and moon by night. Living creatures in the seas and sky. Living creatures on the land and humans in the image of God. The summation of each day or epoch of creation is this: "And God saw that it was good." Whether Genesis 1 is poetry or pattern of life’s progress, above these it is rooting us all in an infinitely creative, life-giving, beauty-loving, relation-building, grace-bearing God. Creation speaks both of God’s infinite greatness and God’s intimate interest in the smallest detail. And like God, in God’s image, we are created to be.

CHRIST AND CREATION. The Gospel writers and Apostles did not miss the connection between creation and Christ. Paul describes Jesus as the "firstborn over all creation" and that "by him all things were created." John writes: "That which was from the beginning…our hands have touched." Michael Card captures something of this mystery: "A mother made by her own child!" In receiving the six days of creation as Christmas gifts, and embracing creation as a mysterious grace, we join with Jesus Christ in bearing life and grace in our world in our generation.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

BIKE HIKE LOG

Dist: 22.4 mi. Avg spd: 16.4. Conditions: 31 degrees, damp roads, overcast skies. Route: north on Dandy Trail to 56th St; through Eagle Creek Park to 71st St; north on Lafayette Rd to Whitestown Rd; east on Whitestown Rd to Kissel Rd; south on Kissel Rd to Lafayette Rd; south on Lafayette Rd to Eagle Creek Park; through ECP to 56th to Dandy Tr to home.

Ride notes: I set out to ride half the distance we traveled on this day one year ago in India--it was our first day of riding there. Today, 37.5 miles would have done it, as we pedaled 75 miles from Nagercoil to Kaniyakumari to Anandapuram on December 29, 2006. But there's quite a bit of difference between riding in 85-95 degree sunny weather and freezing temps with a bit of drizzle--about a 50-degree difference. Even with new neoprene over-shoe covers, my feet got real cold; otherwise, I might still be riding. But 22.4 miles was satisfying, nonetheless. I'd like to ride as many days as possible during these weeks, possibly put in half the distance--1,000 miles--before February 8 rolls around. We'll see.

I haven't posted a number of my rides since my last Bike Hike Log. Most of them have been between 10 and 20 miles in distance and mostly through Eagle Creek Park. I've ridden two or three times a week, either outdoors or on my indoor trainer.
REFLECTIONS OF INDIA - RECALLING WITH GRATITUDE
December 29, 2006 - From Nagercoil to Anandapuram, Tamil Nadu

ONE YEAR AGO TODAY. On this day one year ago, four other cyclists and I began a 2,000-mile bicycle ride from the southern tip of India to New Delhi. Starting in Nagercoil, we rode south to Kaniyakumari and the Indian Ocean, then headed north to a Free Methodist youth hostel in Anandapuram, 75 miles (128 kilometers) away.

FIRST DAY OF SIX WEEKS. Our group of five was completely pumped throughout the day, even though we encountered strong headwinds and rode longer than we expected. It would be the first day in a six-week journey that would be as spiritually insightful as it was physically demanding.

ON MY MIND, IN MY PRAYERS. Today, I plan to make an extended ride north of Indianapolis to mark the start of our ride through India a year ago. I will ride the same Cannondale I pedaled through India. Indian weather was 85 degrees; Indianapolis weather is in the thirties at the moment. Hopefully, it will warm up a bit. But I'm prepared for the cold. I will have on my mind and in my prayers, the Indian friends who rode with us, the support team that drove along in the Tata Sumo pulling a trailer rigged to carry our bikes, the tsunami-impacted children at the hostel, and the thousands of Indian people who greeted us as we pedaled through towns, villages and countryside.

LONGING TO RETURN. I have a strong desire to return to India and another trek across the country. I am still exploring what its people and this experience means to me. Perhaps during these weeks marking the first anniversary of this ride, I will be graced to describe some of the meaning. I also want to offer thanks again for all who supported us with prayers, funding support for Umri Christian Hospital, and encouraging words.

TRACK OUR TREK. Explore our 6-week, 2,000-mile bicycle journey from the southern tip of India to New Delhi, December 29, 2006-February 8, 2007 at http://bicycleindia2007.blogspot.com/ and offer support for rebuilding Umri Christian Hospital at http://www.bikeindia.org/

Five Gold Rings

A Reflection for the Fifth Day of Christmas

"On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me… five gold rings."

Five gold rings = the first five books of the Bible, called the Pentateuch, or Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Scripture: Psalm 98; Deuteronomy 6:10-25; 31:24-26; Romans 10:1-13

GENTLE, PERSISTENT REMEMBRANCE. The reality around our house is that, without this extended focus on the twelve days, Christmas would be receding into distant memory by now. But here it is the fifth day of Christmas and we are anticipating yet another gift on the journey to Epiphany. Granted, this way of observing Christmas does not have hyped anticipation. Instead, there is a gentle, persistent remembrance and insight into the Word become flesh that is inviting and instructive.

STANDARD AND NARRATIVE OF FAITH. Open the gifts given to you today by your True Love. Five gold rings: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. They are known in Judaism as the Torah, or the Pentateuch. Together they are what is referred to in both the Old and New Testaments as the Law. This is the backbone and skeletal structure of the Biblical community of faith. It is the plumb line in an idolatrous and crooked world. It is the narrative and standard for much of what has held Western civilization together for millennia.

COVENANT STORY. The Law is not so much "law" as it is a woven story of faith in which a covenant between the Hebrew people and Yahweh is developed, solidified, interpreted, and applied. This people without identity or land, this people who were slaves in Egypt, find identity (Israel), deliverance (the Exodus), and a home (Canaan, roughly contemporary Palestine). The common denominator in the formation of Israel is faith in and obedience to one unseen God, who is revealed as Yahweh, or I Am.

BOOK BY BOOK. Genesis traces the roots of a chosen and faith-formed people. Exodus walks us through slavery in Egypt, miraculous deliverance, and the formation of the Sinai covenant. Leviticus outlines the terms of the covenant, establishing everything from the calendar to minutia regarding food preparation. Numbers takes great pains to name every tribe and family; it creates a sense of community, belonging, and relationship. Deuteronomy renews the Sinai covenant as the nation prepares to enter Canaan after forty years of wandering in the desert.

LIVING OUT TORAH. How the people of Israel live in light of Torah is the subject of much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments. The historical narratives (Joshua through Esther) tell of the rising and falling of Israel based on adherence to or apostasy from the Law. The prophets (Isaiah through Malachi) are essentially passionate pleas for Israel to voluntarily return to live within the terms of the covenant, within which there would be joy and shalom. The New Testament is about rescuing the Law from legalism and vain traditions and of the fulfillment of Torah in Jesus of Nazareth. The Apostle Paul declares, "Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4).

DARE TO BELIEVE TODAY. So much of what it means to live by faith is learned from the Pentateuch. Abraham took God at God’s word and it was credited to him as righteousness. Joseph first survived then thrived by faith. Moses led his people out of slavery in Egypt singularly by faith in the promise and leadership of God. The invitation made to these ancient people was extended to Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. And the invitation to "fear not" and to dare to believe that "nothing is impossible for God" extends to us today.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

TERMS OF CHRISTMAS ENDEARMENT

CHRISTMAS EVE OPPOSITES. Childhood Christmases with the extended Hay and Sheffield clans were dramatically different. Christmas Eve would be spent in New Castle, Indiana. First, our family would go to Grandpa and Grandma Hay’s for dinner and a gift exchange; then we would drive across town to Aunt Willie Mae’s for the Sheffield gathering. The Sheffields--my mother’s side--were affectionate, warm and readily endearing. The Hays--my dad’s side--were guarded, stand-offish and halting in their familial exchanges. I would experience both on the same evening each year.

HOLY FOLK VS DRUG RUNNERS. I loved the Sheffield Christmas. I endured the Hay gathering. The Hay event was made all the more awkward by the opposite poles at which different households lived. At one end were the ultra-conservative holiness households. These reserved folk carried an air of spiritual pride and judgment. The women wore long dresses and no make-up or jewelry. These families kept their distance from Hays who lived at the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Suffice it to say that two of my fifty-ish uncles trafficked marijuana grown in Kentucky caves up to New Castle and exhibited most common forms of carelessness, recklessness and irresponsibility. In the middle was our bewildered family. All these people crammed into a little house for several hours each Christmas Eve. Talk about awkward!

WRAPPING PAPER MELEE. One year, we realized the terms of endearment. Amid long faces and feigned smiles and strained laughter, my dad wadded up the wrapping paper of the gift he’d just opened and playfully threw it at his alcoholic brother across the room. His brother picked it up and sailed it back. But dad ducked and the wrapping paper wad hit Grandma Hay in the side of the head. She, in turn heaved the wad at another family member. Within minutes, the room was snowing wrapping paper wads. And, along with them, genuine laughter. Heaviness dissipated, suspicion ebbed, judgment was temporarily suspended, and the evening ended in hugs and kind words.

DON’T STOP THE CHAOS. In the years that followed, the evening at Grandma and Grandpa Hay’s would begin with typical awkwardness. There would have been little, if any, contact with each other between Christmases. I would try to figure out the increasingly complex puzzle of who were my real cousins and who was related via divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, etc. But during the gift exchange, the wrapping paper would eventually fly. Even though it might have irritated her, Grandma Hay made little attempt to curb the chaos. Perhaps she knew that it was one thing--perhaps the only thing--that this disparate group of people with a common tie to her and Grandpa Hay would ever enjoy together.

GRACE IN A PAPER WAD. I hope it doesn’t take a wrapping paper wad battle to bring your household or extended family together--however momentarily. I pray it doesn’t come down to that. But if it does, so be it. I only wish I could have followed up that evening with some more frequent contact with my Hay relatives. That little opening, that endearing moment, might have led to real relationship, might have led to understanding, might have provided an opening to a future of grace. Grandma and Grandpa Hay are gone and the Hays no longer gather as family at Christmas. It’s been years since I’ve seen any of them. I think about that on our drive from Indianapolis to New Castle in anticipation of our gathering with the Sheffields each Christmas Eve. And I pray that, somehow, those moments of delightful Hay melee will not be completely lost for the grace they conveyed.
THREE FRENCH HENS
A Reflection for the Third Day of Christmas

"On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me three French hens…"

Three French hens = the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. French hens were considered valuable poultry in the 16th century, something only the rich could afford--like the Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scriptures to read: Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

BEYOND THE BIG DAY. Two days past Christmas Day, the realization of this journey to Epiphany begins to set in. It is a different rhythm than the usual post-holiday let down. At the same time we are usually beginning to put away Christmas decorations, this way of living Christmastime keeps the gifts coming and the celebration building. If you put everything into the Big Day, you may find yourself letting down emotionally and spiritually this week as you get back to routine matters. May this simple spiritual journey and the gifts you are receiving sustain and steady you.

ESSENTIAL GIFTS. Open today’s gifts—faith, hope, and love. The Apostle Paul distills these three gifts, or graces, as the most essential of all Spirit-given gifts. Strip away everything else that seems so necessary, all those "must-have" gifts, the ones so desirable to possess, the ones that make us feel good about ourselves and others feel good about us, the ones that make us feel needed or rewarded. What’s at the heart of this Christian journey? What is irreducible for discipleship? Faith. Hope. Love.

NOW RECEIVE. For those who observed Advent, you know that faith, hope, and love, together with joy, are at the center of the Christmas story – HOPE for a Messiah sustained longingly over many generations; the FAITH of Zechariah, of Mary and Joseph; the LOVE of God for the world expressed in Jesus; the response of JOY by all who drew near to "see this thing that has come to pass." In Advent, we learned about these gifts. But now--in the fulfillment of Christmas--receive the faith of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. Now receive hope for the in-between times (which is most of the time!). Now receive love enough to eclipse all hurts, forgive all sins, and forge the deepest commitments.

EXERCISE TO LIVE. What would it mean for us to move from teaching our children or loved ones about faith to offering them the gift of faith? How do we move from talking about hope to living and modeling hope? Why not quit trying to teach love; let yourself be loved and express unequivocal and unqualified regard? The reality of these core gifts is that we will never realize them unless we exercise them. Faith is not faith until you’ve trusted. Hope is not hope until I’ve lived from here to there in unflagging anticipation that what was promised shall be. Love is not love until we’ve opened our heart to risk forgiving or extending ourselves when reciprocity is not guaranteed.

FROM NOUNS TO VERBS. And it isn’t until we dare to move these gifts from being nouns to verbs that we realize that faith itself is more grace than effort, hope is more grace than will, and love is more grace than feeling. In the decision to act in faith, we receive it afresh. In the decision to hope instead of living down to lowered expectations, hope is born anew in us. In the decision to love, the love of God is unleashed in us all over again. No wonder these "French hens" are so valuable, so prized as gifts.

DIG IN. Explore this day's gifts further and engage a journaling exercise at my Living the Twelve Days of Christmas: A Spiritual Journey site.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TWO TURTLE DOVES
A Reflection for the Second Day of Christmas

"On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me two turtle doves…"

Scriptures to read: Psalm 119:33-40; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Galatians 3:1-25; 4:4-7

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW. Today’s Christmas gifts -- the Old and New Testaments -- are foundational. Together, they weave the connected and continuing story of "salvation history." It begins with the people of Israel and continues in the Church of Jesus Christ. The contents of the Old and New Testament are authoritative in that we believe no other documents or sources are needed to lead us to faith in God and life in fellowship with God. In fact, most Christians hold that no other sources are, indeed, revelation.

TRANSITION POINT. Christmas is the transition point from Old Testament to New Testament. The ancient anticipations, expectations, and interpretations of the Law and prophecies of a Messiah (Christ) are challengingly fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Many good people were so deeply entrenched in their traditions that they simply could not make Jesus fit into their worldview. Many others -- hungry for grace, liberation, and restoration – in faith opened their hearts to Jesus, in whom they found the embodiment of God’s promises.

ANCIENT ROOTS & REVELATION. The Old Testament was all the early followers of Jesus had. It was the Old Testament to which the Apostle Paul was referring when he said "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16) So, don’t leave the Old Testament out of your study. Read it for all it’s worth, for all you can possibly learn and glean from it. At the same time know that, according to many Christian scholars, much of what the OT points to has been or is being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

WHAT'S A TESTAMENT? Like "covenant," the word "testament" is pretty heavy. It certainly has binding promises and obligations for the parties who enter into its terms. So, when Jesus says to the disciples, as they share the Passover meal together, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood" (2 Corinthians 11:25), it must have been rather mind-boggling. We are still exploring and living the full implications of the new covenant. Reading and seeking to understand the New Testament, we learn and appropriate the terms of the "new covenant."

LITERAL, NOT LITERLISTIC. One of the things I find most helpful as I read both Old and New Testaments is to try to grasp and apply the appropriate genre (or form) of literature that is being used. We read legal documents differently than we do songs. We understand letters differently than we do histories. We appreciate the difference between a matter-of-fact statement and hyperbole (intended exaggeration). Noting this helps us interpret and apply the Bible more effectively in our lives and world. The fact that we believe the books of the Bible are inspired and useful for "teaching, etc." doesn’t mean we read flatly. To take the Bible literally does not mean we take it more literally than it takes itself.

REIGN OF PEACE. The dramatic diversity of the books of the Bible makes it difficult to find a common thread running throughout. But both Old and New Testaments speak pointedly of the Kingdom of God -- the reign of God as Lord in the lives of people and communities who embrace grace. God’s reign is depicted in the Old and New Testaments as a kingdom of peace. So it is fitting that today’s gifts are depicted as "turtle doves," the dove being the ancient and contemporary symbol of peace, or shalom. The dove is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit, who brings the Word of God alive in our lives. Embrace God’s gift peace expressed in the new covenant mediated and sustained by Jesus Christ (the "partridge in a pear tree").

DIG IN. Read further and engage today's journaling exercise; also, access all installments of Living the Twelve Days of Christmas: A Spiritual Journey

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A PARTRIDGE IN A PEAR TREE
A Reflection for the First Day of Christmas

"On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…a partridge in a pear tree."

Scripture readings: Psalm 16; Luke 2:1-20; John 1:9-14

ONE GIFT OCCASIONS ALL OTHERS. This is the official day for gift giving and receiving. After the anticipation of Advent and the "I can hardly wait" eagerness of children (and some of us adults, too), Christmas arrives. What gift will you – or did you – open first? And note your feelings after the last gift has been opened. Of all the gifts our loved ones give us, there is a gift that is before and after them. It is the very occasion of every other gift. It is a gift that is the more-than-gifts-can-express heart-felt intent behind every gift. Our "true love," who is none other than God, gives us the Gift – Jesus Christ.

STRANGE MYSTERY. The Incarnation -- the "Word made flesh," "God with us" -- is at once strange mystery and compelling attraction. If we really stop to think about it, if we step back a bit from our cultural conditioning and foregone conclusions and our all-but-imperceptible worldview, Incarnation is a strange mystery. A "4 Him" song muses: "This is such a strange way to save the world." Poets have tried to put the Word-made-flesh into words: "What child is this who, laid to rest on Mary’s lap, is sleeping?" And: "I wonder as I wander out under the sky how Jesus the Savior did come for to die for poor ornery sinners like you and like I?"

FOR TODAY, REVEL. Ever wonder about such things? It is so beyond us that we can’t rationally fathom it. We will be exploring it for a lifetime. We get to live these questions, to enter into the mystery. But for now, for this day, at least, can we accept the Good News told by angels? Can we just revel in it, wonder, ponder?

COMPELLING ATTRACTION. If it is a strange mystery, the Incarnation is also a compelling attraction. Those who get the chance to hear the story – stark as angels appearing in the sky to shepherds – are drawn to the child in the manger. Hearing, we, too, can decide to hasten near to the manger…to adore. Adore, half giddy cooing like a grandparent over an infant; half prostrate-falling worship in the presence of sheer Power, sheer Love.

LAYING DOWN HIS LIFE. Today’s gift is a "partridge in a pear tree." The image is of a mother partridge feigning death in the presence of an intruder in order to draw attention away from her vulnerable chicks. The Gift in the manger would one day lay down his life for "poor ornery people like you and like I." That, too, is part of the strange mystery and the compelling attraction.

WANDER, WONDER & OFFER THANKS. This is a busy day, to be sure. But not too busy to take a few moments to step outside, away from the wonderful noises and traditions. Break away briefly. Wander out under the sky. Quiet yourself. Wonder about the Incarnation. You don’t have to have answers for all the questions. Asking about them is itself entering into the mystery. And, before you head back in, find a way to offer simple thanks for it, for the Gift.

Read further and engage the journaling exercise for today; also, access all installments of Living the Twelve Days of Christmas: A Spiritual Journey.
BETHLEHEM WONDER

I am particularly drawn this morning to verses 3-5 of Philips Brooks' now immortal Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." I don't know that I've ever sung the fourth verse. I suppose it is cut for the sake of brevity, just as most of the verses of "Amazing Grace." But these verses together form a profound reflection on the Incarnation. More than that, the offer an penetrating personal invitation to every one of us. What a wonder!

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.
No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

Where children pure and happy pray to the bless├Ęd Child,
Where misery cries out to Thee, Son of the mother mild;
Where charity stands watching and faith holds wide the door,
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!

Monday, December 24, 2007

GREAT AND SMALL

"Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father He remains,
from His mother He goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,

He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at His mother’s bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant."
-- Augustine

Sunday, December 23, 2007

AN ANCIENT AN ADMITTED PARADOX

“It is in the old Christmas carols, hymns, and traditions--those which date from the Middle Ages--that we find not only what makes Christmas poetic and soothing and stately, but first and foremost what makes Christmas exciting. The exciting quality of Christmas rests on an ancient and admitted paradox. It rests upon the paradox that the power and center of the whole universe may be found in some seemingly small matter, that the stars in their courses may move like a moving wheel around the neglected outhouse of an inn.” — G. K. Chesterton

Friday, December 21, 2007

12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS: A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY

"THE BIG DAY"...THEN WHAT? Care to join with me on spiritual journey through the "Twelve Days of Christmas?" I've prepared readings and reflections for each day from Christmas to Epiphany, concluding on January 6. Instead of collapsing or meandering after "the big day," why not keep watch through these weeks that lead us from festive days into the heart of winter.

ENTER INTO A TIME-HONORED PRACTICE. I must tell you that I'm still a novice at observing the "Twelve Days of Christmas." I attempted to observe Christmastide this way for the first time in 1999. But the more I am learning about the tradition, and with each year I mark these days with intentional discipline, the more I appreciate this way of celebrating Christmas. I enter into this long-standing tradition as a contemporary spiritual exercise.

A BIT OF HISTORY. This journey follows the teaching themes of the song "The Twelve Days of Christmas." You read right: teaching themes. What I've always thought was sheer silliness (what weird, wacky, useless gifts to give to one's true love!) turns out to be a teaching device used in catechism for children as they prepared for Christian baptism. The "silly gifts" are disguised references to some of the basic teachings of Christianity.

A LESSON A DAY. Dating to the 16th century religious wars in England (during which the Catholic expression of the Christian faith was severely restricted), the "Twelve Days of Christmas" song was a mnemonic device used to teach the catechism secretly to youngsters. The "true love" mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God. The "me" who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the "days" represents some aspect of the Christian faith that was important for children or new believers to learn.

WHAT MY TRUE LOVE GAVE TO ME. These twelve days offer an opportunity to explore and celebrate the significance of Christmas by touching on twelve different aspects of our spirituality. We receive, through Jesus Christ, these gifts for living life to the full:
First Day, December 25: A partridge in a pear tree = Jesus Christ
Second Day, December 26: Two turtle doves = Old and New Testaments
Third Day, December 27: Three French hens = Faith, hope, and love
Fourth Day, December 28: Four calling birds = Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
Fifth Day, December 29: Five golden rings = Pentateuch (Torah): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
Sixth Day, December 30: Six geese a laying = Six days of creation
Seventh Day, December 31: Seven swans a swimming = Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: 1) prophecy, 2) ministry, 3) teaching, 4) exhortation, 5) giving, 6) leading, and 7) compassion
Eighth Day, January 1: Eight maids a milking = The Beatitudes
Ninth Day, January 2: Nine ladies dancing = Fruit of the Holy Spirit: 1) love, 2) joy, 3) peace, 4) patience, 5) kindness, 6) generosity, 7) faithfulness, 8) gentleness, and 9) self-control.
Tenth Day, January 3: Ten lords a leaping = The Ten Commandments
Eleventh Day, January 4: Eleven pipers piping = The Eleven faithful Apostles
Twelfth Day, January 5: Twelve drummers drumming = The twelve points of doctrine in The Apostle's Creed
Epiphany, January 6: Visit of the Magi

HOW TO ACCESS THE READINGS. Could be an interesting 12-day journey. Hope you can join in. I'd be interested in your responses, questions, and/or reflections as we go along. In addition to being available at my "Twelve Days" site, the readings/reflections will be posted here on bikehiker blog each evening for the next day, beginning December 24.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

CHRISTMAS IS FOR ADULTS

I wrote the following poem last year, thinking about the possibility of Christmas making a spiritual change in the hearts of adults, not just children.

It is not enough to say
"Christmas is for children."
So it is, and ever so.
But it is especially for adults,
those routinous creatures
with furrowed brows wrapped
in self-absorbing pursuits.

These lamentable beings need
Christmas if they are ever
to be whole again.
They are so forgetful of
things that matter
and so clamorous for
things that don't.

Christmas, if it can pierce
their thick facade and
deflate their oversized egos,
may touch a forgotten place--
an abandoned but still
life-giving place--in adult souls.

Christmas invites children
and adults alike to a
place where room is made for
a Child and that Child is
adored and honored as
a gift, a hope--even
salvation for one and all.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DON'T LIVE IN THE PAST

WHERE ARE YOU FOCUSED? Hope offers us a robust experience of the present moment based on our choice to believe in and focus on a promised future. We are able to be attentive to the challenges and opportunities of today because we are not dwelling on the past but anticipating what is yet to come. Life is full of possibilities, not laments or longings for the past. Where are you focused--on the past or on the future?

HOPE IS A CHOICE. The older I get, the more readily I see how important it is to choose hope. That's right: CHOOSE hope. Hope is a conscious choice that we can make or reject in preference for other options. The choice for or away from hope at the mid-point of life is crucial. One's choice for or away from hope in midlife determines to a great extent how one lives out the rest of earthly days.

OL' GLORY DAYS. The people described in Hebrews 11 chose hope. And because they chose hope, they lived forwardly by faith. They weren't thinking about the past. They weren't thinking about what they had left behind. They weren't dwelling on the old "glory days." They weren't fishing around to attach to scattered pals, resurrect old friendships, or recreate "the good times." They weren't hanging on to what was familiar and easy for them. Instead, they looked forward in hope. And they were on a breathtaking adventure. Instead of living for the past, they were forging new history every day.

REJECTING THE FUTURE. "If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return." I see people rejecting the future everyday. They return to the old country. They set out to live by faith, but they get tired or afraid or lonely or feel overwhelmed. And, instead of using the resources readily available to them, they reach back for what is most familiar to them: the past. And they unwittingly return. They may look and sound faithful, but they've abandoned ship and are in full retreat.

CHURCHES THAT COP OUT. Some churches may have great, modern facilities and attractive programs, but they have copped out of the challenges of the present and focused on returning to some imagined more readily managable (i.e., controllable) time. They tickle the imagination that people and America can return to the past. They cultivate nostalgia of revivalism and fundamentalism but fail to lead their congregations into the spiritual warfare that is pressing on the battlefronts in our cities, schools, media, and neighborhoods.

LEAVING IN PLACE. It goes something like this: Things today are more complex than ever before. Relationships change. People transition. Neighborhoods change. Church situations change. Technology baffles. The feelings of familiarity become more fragile. They feel overwhelmed and a bit lost. So, instead of focusing on the future God has guaranteed and seeking to become a faithful adventurer amid incredible challenges, they withdraw into the illusion that you can freeze time and go back to the past. They carve out enclaves of faux safety and false security. They disengage from the challenge. They seek to be served rather than to serve. Unwittingly, thinking of the country they left, they take the opportunity to return.

TEMPTATION OF THE PAST. Living in the past is a real spiritual temptation. And it is just that: a temptation. Past-focused living is not the way of Christian faith. Christ has called us forward, inviting us to leave the past behind and walk with him day by day into a promised future He has secured. He has given us hope. And hope is what we will need to adequately respond to the challenges and situations we will face today. Don't dwell in the past; face today with God's future in heart.

POWER OF HOPE FOR TODAY'S CHALLENGES. No doubt today's challenges are great. Sometimes we are overwhelmed. Sometimes there are setbacks. Sometimes we feel like just stopping. And that choice can be made. But where does that lead? Where do you go? What kind of choice is that? God's comfort and the encouragement of His Word are made for moments like this. When going forward is tough, God's presence and the hope He gives us, draws us forward and keeps us focused on the future he's promised. Keep choosing hope and let God show you His power, His presence, His peace as you forge a history of faith today.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

HOPE INTENSIFIES

TIME RIPENS. I read the first chapter of Luke this morning and concluded it is about the intensification of hope. There are two pregnancy announcements and one birth. Under usual circumstances, no big news among Judean Jews living at the time of King Herod. But these are no usual pregnancies and there's nothing ordinary about Zechariah and Elizabeth's newborn child. By the time the baby--peculiarly named "John"--is born, it is clear that God is moving in a powerful way, time is ripe, and prophecies are beginning to be fulfilled.

FORERUNNER BORN. Long ago, a prophecy had described one who would precede the promised Messiah (anointed one, savior, deliverer). Isaiah 40:1-12 prophesies of one who would "prepare the way for the Lord," going before the Messiah to help people be prepared to receive him. This was no vague recollection. One of the anticipated signals that Messiah was coming would be the appearance of a great prophet. And that's what Zechariah and Elizabeth have on their hands.

FAR OFF NO MORE. So, hope that had been nothing more than a series of written prophecies now begins to come into focus. Hope that for generations had seemed nothing but a candle flickering against a dark horizon now grows and brightens. What had always been off in the distance now comes into view. "Someday" begins to be marked not by generations or decades or years, but by months and days.

SIGN: BOXES WITH MY NAME ON THEM! Hope intensifies with specific actions that signal fulfillment will actually occur. When I was a child, early in December and with Christmas way off in the distance, I would draw a circle around toys pictured in the thick Sears & Roebuck "Wish Book." My mom would make "do you really need that?" queries and "I don't know" put-offs. I would state why one toy was better than another and make rational appeals. I didn't know which--if any--of my "wishes" might come true. For the longest time there seemed to be no evidence that any of my efforts had made an impact. Then, a week or so before Christmas, packages would begin to appear here and there. Wrapped boxes with my name on them! It was a sure sign that something of my hopes would be realized. I had no idea what was in the boxes, but there were boxes! This thing was really going to happen!

SIGN: JOHN IS BORN! This thing of a Messiah, long ago promised and wished for, was really going to happen. The sign was a promise from an angel to an old priest, confirmed as his elderly wife became pregnant, and fulfilled at the birth of a son whose given name was "John." By the time Zechariah lets loose with a jubilant utterance, all in the community know that they're living on the edge of time. Hope intensifies.

WHAT'S YOUR SIGN? What intensifies hope in you? What are some signs or signals that bring hope more into focus? For me, sometimes, it is a Scripture reading that comes alive in confirmation or challenge. Sometimes, it is inspiration in an old hymn or contemporary Christian song. Sometimes, it is the presence and likeness of Christ that I encounter in the lives of others. Sometimes, it is the witness of the Holy Spirit with my spirit. Sometimes, it is what is experienced in the gathered community of faith. These varied experiences and different kinds of encounters intensify my hope and inspire me to live today as if the promised future were just around the corner--as good as done.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

SNOW ANGEL

















Over six inches of snow fell on Indy and wind whipped it into drifts today. Molly and Sam played in the backyard this afternoon. I hope to strap on my cross-country skis in a little while and trek through Eagle Creek Park. 'Tis the season.
HOPE SHIFTS THE FOCUS FORWARD

Read: Romans 8:18-27

Hope shifts the focus forward. Whatever we're going through at the moment, hope shifts the focus toward a future point in time. The Apostle Paul writes: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." Suffering in the moment may or may not be directly connected to an anticipated future, but an anticipated future certainly has the power to change the perspective of those who suffer.

A HOPE ASTERISK (*) ON THE PRESENT. The current situation always has an asterisk (*) with it; the present is always conditioned by what is anticipated for the future. Most often we see an asterisk (*) beside someone's name or their achievements and it references us to something that happened in their past or some qualifier. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have had great baseball achievements, but it is likely their statistics will always have an asterisk beside them, indicating they used banned steroids in their achievements. But I think of a "hope asterisk" on our present situation in the way the Apostle Paul writes of it. Currently: suffering* Future: *glory.

HOPE IN MY SUFFERING. Back in June, I went off the side of a mountain bike trail bridge and fell 7 or 8 feet (I assure you, I haven't been back to measure!) directly on my back. I suffered 17 fractures, including vertebrae, shoulder blades, ribs and sternum. I am thankful it was not worse. But the pain was tremendous, especially my sternum. I dreaded a sneeze, cough, or a hick-up for months! I wore a torso brace for 8 weeks--my personal torture chamber! I would take issue with Paul's description of "our light and momentary affliction." During those months I had moments of sheer frustration with my condition. It seemed I would never get back to normal. Two things helped me: (1) prayer--your prayer for me and my own communion with God, and (2) focusing on the hopeful future that I believed would eventually be realized. I couldn't wait to get back in the pulpit and back on a bicycle--and did so as soon as I was permitted by my physician (well, actually just a bit sooner!). As for preaching, I only missed one Sunday.

"IT'S GOING BAD, BUT I SHOULDN'T GO ON THAT." I know a man who responds very honestly to the common greeting, "how's it going?" He has a mental health condition that causes him to make a very limited and exact response each time: "Oh, it's going bad, but I shouldn't go on that." Think about that in light of Paul's insight. Currently: bad situation, suffering, trouble, hardship, unsatisfactory, unfulfilled promise, in the middle, in the thick of it, in the meantime, in between, etc. "But I shouldn't go on that." Why shouldn't I go on that? Because there is something more, something else, something beyond, something that conditions the way I cope with and view the present moment. And that something is hope.

HOPE, FAITH & COPING. Sometimes, we cope with something we because we've had experience with it before. We've had a cold and we know that, by repeated experience, it will end. We don't completely freak out when a child gets chicken pox or the mumps or measles; we recognize these as common childhood conditions that 99% of the time pass without any trauma. But sometimes, we cope with tough stuff in the moment because we believe in a promised future, a fulfillment yet to occur, an assurance of peace beyond this moment. And that's where we put our faith. Faith is living out the hope we embrace. It is leaning into that hope and living as if it were a done deal. That's living in the present with a "hope asterisk."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

A WEST VIRGINIA WEDDING

TO PARKERSBURG. I drove over to West Virginia on Friday to conduct a wedding for two of my best childhood friends on Saturday. It took nearly five hours to get to Parkersburg, but I arrived early enough in the day to take a long bike ride around the city. I bundled up well and stayed relatively warm, even though the temperature was about 34 degrees.

RIVER TOWN LEGEND. This is where I lived from age six through seventeen. A city of about 45,000 residents, Parkersburg is right on the Ohio River where the Little Kanawha River adjoins. The town has rich history in the region, with 1780's-era legends surrounding the Herman Blennerhassett and Aaron Burr.

A RIDE THROUGH MY PAST. We moved from Parkersburg in 1976, so it took me a little while to get reoriented to the lay of the land, but most of it readily came back to me. I rode to the houses we used to live in, to the City Park, to our church, to the 19th Street Meat Market (where I used to pick up my bundle of newspapers to deliver on my bike each day, shown here...still doing great business), to Parkersburg High School, and around the south side of town (across the Little Kanawha). I have lots of good memories of this time and place.

BEST WISHES, BILLY & RUTH ANN. I was privileged to officiate the wedding of my friends Billy and Ruth Ann at the restored historic Blennerhassett Hotel. What a quaint place! I pray that this mid-life beginning for Billy and Ruth Ann brings them happiness throughout the rest of their lives. I offer them blessing and all my prayers.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

OUT OF DARKNESS...HOPE

"The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned." Isaiah 9:2

Where does hope come from? How does it happen? Why does it come onto the scene and into our lives? What is the nature of hope? Can we--should we--form our lives around something like hope? I'm asking and exploring such questions during these weeks before Christmas.

A few things I've so far noted:

1. Biblical hope is different than Disney hope. It is based on the promise of the Word of God, not wishes upon stars and "hope-so" day dreams.

2. Hope puts the past into perspective and buoys us amid current grief and loss.

3. Biblical hope orients us forwardly and giving purpose in our present challenges and opportunities.

4. Biblical hope is more an action than a feeling. It is a grace that is expressed in confidence in God and in concrete actions of faith and love.

5. One of the primary expressions of hope for the future is present neighborliness. Being a committed neighbor today anticipates the future described in Biblical prophesies.

CAN WE LIVE WITHOUT HOPE? Perhaps hope is something we cannot long live without. The Apostle Paul describes our situation before Jesus came in Ephesians 2:2: "you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world." That's a pretty dim existence, isn't it? The Good News is that God didn't leave us that way. Further, it is God's will that no one should be excluded, cut off, left out, or without hope.

A DARK EXISTENCE But living without hope must be a dark existence. Isaiah 9 describes people "living in darkness." They were in "gloom" and "distress." The gentiles of Galilee were "living in the land of the shadow of death." Can you use your imagination to put yourself into their shoes for a moment? That's difficult for me to do, because I can never remember living without some form of hope. Even my most discouraging moments and darkest days have been buoyed by reassuring voices and followed by a forward-looking recovery.

ROTTEN OUTCOMES OF HOPELESSNESS It is hard for me to personally imagine hopelessness, but I can certainly see it lived out. Its rotten evidence and outcomes are everywhere. Without a sense of a hopeful future, children tune out and then drop out of school. Without a sense of a meaningful tomorrow, people act irresponsibly and indulge in harmful, self-defeating behavior. Without a sense of investment in results that they can fairly enjoy, people lie, deceive, cheat, and steal their way along in life. Without a sense of a stake in the community, people abandon it in pursuit of private facsimiles, erecting ever higher psychological, social and physical barriers intended to make them feel secure and "at home."

UNWITTINGLY LIVING WIHOUT HOPE It occurs to me that most people who are living without hope are doing so unwittingly. They are in the dark without realizing it. Maybe they've never seen spiritual light. Maybe they've grown up in family and social environments of desperation, competition, fear, intimidation, bullying, violence, and threats of being abandoned or cut off. This is reality for more people than we think. Some people have just become accustomed to living in such darkness. Without real hope, they cope with life with the resources they've been given, that seem to work for them, and that will not build them up only to crush them further.

CHOOSING FACSIMILES Others have rejected faith, hope, and love somewhere along the way in preference for "sin for a season." Like the Prodigal, they trade eternal grace for things that satisfy for a moment and promise to fulfill their dreams. But life and love evade their indulging grasp. They gather around them symbols of success, but live without hope.

IS THIS REALLY LIVING? So, folks do live without hope, but it is not something that can really be described as "living." It may be more like existing or surviving. That's not what God designed or intended. "I have come that you might have life and have it to the full," Jesus said, declaring divine intention for every human being.

HOPE REACHING US, US REACHING OUT "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned." The Gospel writers point this prophesy's fulfillment to a Bethlehem stable and to the choice of Jesus to teach and heal in Galilee. God's intention to bring light to all the world through Jesus has reached all the way to you and me today. We now know what it means to have hope. Now, about those we see or know who are living without it: what might we be called to do for them or share with them?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

HOPE STARTS WITH NEIGHBORLINESS

FABRIC OF THE FUTURE. Yesterday, I highlighted what Walter Brueggemann insists about the future and the present: “God’s future is enacted as present neighborliness.” We just cannot separate what God intends to do in the future from how we relate to our neighbors today. Neighborliness is woven into the very fabric of the future the Bible describes.

COSTLY CARE. Neighborliness is not some mild emotion of goodwill we occasionally feel about the folks who live next door or those who like us and who are very much like us. Neighborliness is not warm fuzzies. Neighborliness is an active love, a sometimes costly commitment, a responsiveness to others that emerges from being so loved by God. “Christ loved us, and we ought also to love one another.” And who is my neighbor? Jesus forever radicalizes neighborliness with the story of the Samaritan.

NO HO-HUM MATTER. So, to say that “God’s future is enacted as present neighborliness” is no “been there, done that” proposition. If you’ve loved your neighbors and moved on to so-called “more important” or “more spiritual” things, you’ve missed the point entirely. If being an authentic neighbor doesn’t challenge you to the core, strain your closest relationships, unsettle your sense of social ease, cut in to your TV-watching and hobby time, and disrupt typical patterns of American consumerism, then you haven’t yet really grasped what Jesus is talking about or begun to understand how important this connection is to the past and future.

WORSHIP & NEIGHBORING. It’s so much easier to go to church and sing about heaven and the future than to be a neighbor. Being a neighbor can get messy. It can make claims on you. It can take you places you really didn’t intend to go. But being a neighbor brings as much praise to God as engaging passionately in public worship. By the way, it’s not a matter of either singing praise or being a neighbor. It’s both/and!

FROM A NAZI PRISON. I came across a sermon written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a Nazi prison in 1944, not long before the German theologian was killed by the Nazis for sympathizing with Jews and attempting to remove Hitler. Bonhoeffer eloquently equates neighbor with Christ and challenges us to respond. He writes:

WILL YOU OPEN THE DOOR? “We are faced with the shocking reality: Jesus stands at the door and knocks, in complete reality. He asks you for help in the form of a beggar, in the form of a ruined human being in torn clothing. He confronts you in every person that you meet. Christ walks on the earth as your neighbor as long as there are people. He walks on the earth as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you and makes his demands. That is the greatest seriousness and the greatest blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?"

WHERE WE BEGIN. The question lingers. Will we keep the door locked or open it? As we respond or do not respond to neighbor, we do so or do not do so to Christ. Hope begins when we begin to be a neighbor. Neighborliness brings hope for us: it releases us from failing patterns of behavior that exclude people based on worldly values. We recover long-lost principles of Biblical community. We also lean into the future God desires. Neighborliness brings hope for others: a distorted sense of being is healed, estrangement is negated, and gifts are mutually given and received. Neighborliness brings God’s future near. Without small and consistent acts of neighborliness, hope may as well be a pipe dream.

START TODAY. Where can you and I begin anew to be a neighbor today?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

ACTIVE WAITING

"Waiting is essential to the spiritual life. But waiting
as a disciple of Jesus is not an empty waiting. It is a
waiting with a promise in our hearts that makes
already present what we are waiting for. We wait
during Advent for the birth of Jesus. We wait after
Easter for the coming of the Spirit, and after the
ascension of Jesus we wait for his coming again in
glory. We are always waiting, but it is a waiting in the
conviction that we have already seen God's footsteps.
Waiting for God is an active, alert - yes, joyful - waiting.
As we wait we remember him for whom we are waiting,
and as we remember him we create a community ready
to welcome him when he comes."

-- Henri Nouwen
THE FUTURE AND PRESENT NEIGHBORLINESS

HOPE IN THE FACE OF LOSS. A friend sent me an article titled "Hope in the Face of Loss" by Walter Brueggemann (from The Other Side magazine, March & April, 1999). It connects the way ancient people handled loss with how we respond to loss today. It also shows how some people chose to respond to their troubles with hope--and how we can, too. Brueggemann confirms a lot of what I've been trying to convey about Biblical hope--how it impacts our sense of the future and actions in the present.

POINTING BACKWARD. At a time in which Christian identity is being pulled in every direction, Brueggemann points Christians backward to Jewish patterns of hoping, saying "we need to maintain our hope by reaching into the past for assurances that the future will restore what the present has destroyed."

A CULTURE DEFINED BY LOSS. "The enduring sense of loss that accompanied the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of Jesus continues into the present day," asserts Brueggemann. "We live in a culture defined by loss. That loss touches everything and everyone. It includes the failure of the social fabric, the failure of intellectual certitudes, the failure of organizational structures, the failure of worldwide economic viability. Our U.S. society now struggles to…embrace a loss that is more than can be imagined."

THREE TEMPTATIONS IN THE FACE OF LOSS. Noting that ancient Jews and Christians faced some of the same temptations we as a society face when dealing with great loss, Brueggemann articulates three such temptations: "Then, as now, some engaged in DENIAL, imagining that not much is happening, that the loss is not deep or permanent (except that Jerusalem was really gone and Jesus was really crucified). Then, as now, some also engaged in FANTASY, committing irresponsible private actions that fly in the face of public need. Then, as now, some acknowledged that the old patterns are really over, but had NO IDEA OF HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS. But some, "drawing upon a determined, resilient memory," engaged in massive buoyant acts of recommitment to the future."

BASIS OF HOPE. Brueggemann roots hope and hopeful acts deeply: "People who hope are not people who have a vague sense that things will work out all right. People who hope are those who know the name of God and God's characteristic gifts: steadfast love, compassion, and faithfulness, the three great qualities that eventuate in the wholeness of shalom.”

ACTING UPON THE FUTURE. “Without denying the present disorder or confusion or distortion, people who hope and watch and wait and pray and expect know that God's shalom is as good as done. People who hope are people who act in the conviction that God's future is reliably present-tense and therefore act upon it before it is fully in hand."

PRESENT NEIGHBORLINESS. What do Christians do in the meantime? What is our signal of faith that the future of God's shalom wins out? Brueggemann invitingly says: "God's future is enacted as present neighborliness." Instead of joining in with functional atheists in greed, injustice, acquisitiveness, exploitation, brutality, self-absorption, and ethnic pride, we are called beyond such self-destructive idolatry to a simple but all-encompassing life: Love God and love neighbor. Not either, or; but both, and.

CAN’T SEPARATE GOD FROM NEIGHBOR. "We now live in a society," concludes Brueggemann, "that wants to separate God and neighbor, to keep something of God without the neighbor who comes with God. But that is futile. God's coming shalom, which is sure for the world, is a gift of neighborliness. Widow, orphan, illegal immigrant, poor, homeless, disabled--all count, all are citizens of God's shalom."

WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR? In a society that has very subtly, sophisticatedly separated God from neighbor, I am convinced that the most haunting, compelling, redeeming question for this generation (and perhaps especially for the most zealous of Christians) is: "Who is my neighbor?" Answering it will take a lifetime of service and joy in fellowship with our neighbors and with God.

A FEW QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

1. Brueggeman says "we live in a culture defined by loss" and he names several "failures" that combine to increase our sense of loss as individuals, groups and a society: failure of the social fabric, loss of intellectual certitutdes, failure of organizational structures and failure of worldwide economic viability. In what ways have you noticed some of these failures and a mounting sense of loss they bring? These are not personal failures, but they have an impact on individuals. How do you think they have an impact on you or those you know?

2. Of the three temptations in the face of loss--denial (what loss?), fantasy (build bigger walls to protect us! hoard! retreat into private enclaves!) and shutting down (wallow in depression, helplessness)--which do you see most at work in our society today? Which of these the greater temptation for you?

3. An alternative is to face real loss with what Brueggemann describes this way: drawing upon a determined, resilient memory, engage in massive buoyant acts of recommitment to the future. What memories of God's faithfulness, character, actions of salvation, covenant, and grace can you/we cultivate and draw upon? What certainties for the future do we know God has pointed you/us toward? Then, what possible "massive bouyand acts" might you/we engage in?

4. Perhaps no act so counters the present culture of loss so much so as genuinely loving our neighbor as an outworking of authentically loving God. If "God's future is present neighborliness," what questions do you/we need to be asking? Perhaps:
- Who is my neighbor?
- Do I love him/her/them?
- If not, why not?
- If so, how do I actively (not passively!) express this love?
- Am I able to be faithful to God without loving the neighbors to whom I am sent or who are sent unto me?
- What future am I prophesying with my attitudes and actions regarding neighbors--especially difficult neighbors?
- What spiritual resources do I need to love my neighors?
- How might we love our neighbors together?

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Go to Daily Doses of Hope to access journaling, spiritual exercises and sacred lyrics that accompany this reflection. There's a Daily Dose of Hope for each day of Advent 2007.

Monday, December 10, 2007

WELCOMING GOD'S FUTURE NOW

I read Isaiah 11:1-10 (NIV) and find it the most compelling scenario of the future a Biblical prophet ever expressed:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him-
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.

The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious.


WHAT GOD MOVES HISTORY TOWARD. There are many references to the future in the Bible. To me, this prophecy in Isaiah 11 is the most compelling. It is one of the divinely inspired scenarios of the future that gives me great hope. I look forward to such a time. There may be many tough things to go through before this day arrives. Other prophesies of tribulation and judgment may occur along the way. But this vision in which the poor and needy are treated fairly, in which ancient hostilities and divisions end, and in which "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" is what God is moving history toward.

PREPARE THE WAY. If this vision is what we're headed for, then why not live and act in light of its fulfillment? Let us embrace its values. Let us lift up this way of relating to one another. Let us establish its policies as a way of governing. Let us "prepare the way for the Lord" by filling the gaps and the barriers in our own lives that prevent such a future from occurring in our lifetimes.

ALREADY HERE. Beginning to live as if the future were already here is the essence of Biblical hope. It is what Jesus described when he said "the kingdom of God is among you." If this future--God's future--is what is intended, then surely all God's will and power is pressing toward it. Then, let us align our intentions, our wills, our behaviors, and whatever limited influence we have fully in the direction of this future.

LEAN INTO THE FUTURE. Rather than despairing in the face of judgment or disaster or disheartening things beyond our control (by withdrawing, abandoning, turning inward, etc.), we are invited to express the Word's most simple and profound callings -- offer peace, hospitality and hope. We are invited to lean into the Kingdom of God. We are invited to think and live and act as if what SHALL be ALREADY is. What we believe to be true about the future does more to shape our present actions than anything from our past. We are ambassadors of God's future.

WHAT'S DESTINED TO FAIL. The world's values are self-destructive. An economy based on greed will fail. An order based on survival of the richest, the fittest, the brightest, etc. will tumble. Social values that exclude some and hoard wealth and serve relatively few at the expense of many will come to a disastrous end. Jesus has already spoken the word of judgment. And Jesus has already spoken the word of hope. His words shake the world to its foundations.

TRANSFORMED BY SIMPLE ACTS. But the world will be transformed, not by great force or might, but by such simple acts as hospitality, neighboring, and lived grace. The word of grace - the Good News - is that we do not have to live backwardly, repeating the past. We can live God's future now. In fact, the future becomes more of what we envision and live and choose.

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Go to Daily Doses of Hope to access journaling, spiritual exercises and sacred lyrics that accompany this reflection. There is a Daily Dose of Hope for each day of Advent 2007.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

HOPE IS MORE THAN A FEELING
Advent 2007 / Daily Doses of Hope - #7

BETTER THAN THE EMOTION. Hope is usually recognized by a certain way we feel. But hope runs deeper and carries us further than any passing positive emotion about our prospects for the future that we may feel or express. Feeling hopeful is good; knowing hope as a grace is better.

CAN'T WAIT FOR CHRISTMAS. Anticipation of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day has always made me feel hopeful. As a child, I could hardly wait them. My feelings were echoed in a holiday tune: “We’ve been good, but we can’t last; hurry, Christmas, hurry fast!” I felt hopeful because of what I was all but certain would happen, even though I wasn’t sure just what specifically would transpire. There would be gifts! I would be wonderfully surprised. Expectations would be surpassed. Food, family, fun, presents, decorations, music and more conspired each year to create a powerful feeling I still associate with Christmas. Before the holiday would be over, I’d find myself saying: “I can’t wait until next Christmas.”

ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. One of many “wonders” in my association with Christmas and hope is the wonder that ordinary people and ordinary places and ordinary things could be so transformed—even if only momentarily—in such extraordinary ways. Christmas seemed to put a shine on everything and make everyone considerably greater. One had the feeling that anything was possible at Christmas, which, I believe it is!

WHEN THE EMOTION OF HOPES SUBSIDES. Of course, the feeling of hope would dissipate about the time the holiday school break ended. By mid-January Christmas would be a distant memory. Even if the positive memories were powerful enough to keep Christmas alive as hope, the feeling of hope would be all but gone. I wouldn’t be daydreaming about Christmas. I wouldn’t measure time as only so many days until Christmas. I’m sure there were other, lesser hopes that drew me forward daily and weekly. But as a feeling, Christmas hope subsided.

AS A GRACE, HOPE ABIDES. I have since learned something of the difference between the feeling of hope and the grace of hope. As a feeling, hope comes and goes, ebbs and flows. As a grace, hope abides. As a feeling, hope can overwhelm you with a sense of fullness one day, but leave you feeling forlorn and empty the next. As a grace, hope roots us to deeper promises and a more purposeful sense of being, worth and meaning. Thank God we are more than the stuff we can or cannot purchase! Thank God there is deeper meaning than the occasions we and others can orchestrate! Thank God there is a hope that holds us when our emotions would mislead us!

CONNECT, DISCONNECT. Please note: feelings and outward expressions that we usually associate with hope may or may not be connected to the grace of hope. Some people have what we call a “naturally sunny disposition” that is typically associated with hope. But a bubbly disposition may have little to do with the grace of hope. Some folks, desperate for peace and love, project the cheeriest of perspectives. Other people may have a naturally dourer disposition. We may wonder if they ever really laugh or “let go”; we may wonder if they have hope. In reality, they may have a greater grasp on hope than we ever imagined. Authentic hope runs deeper than our feelings of hope.

THE GIFTS POINT TO A GRACE. Christmas offers us the possibility and gift of authentic hope. Christmas gift-giving points beyond the "joy of giving" to the power of authentic hope: expectation of a delivering Messiah who comes to redeem every person, reconcile people to each other, and restore the world in justice and peace. This is ever the hope we proclaim. Once we receive it by faith, we live in light of its compelling vision toward its complete fulfillment. Once we have received this gift, this grace, no passing emotion can ever completely either overwhelm or drain us. Hope abides.

A LIFE LIVED IN HOPE. It is difficult to tell children that “Christmas is not just about gifts.” But the manner of our holiday celebration connected to a lived witness during and after this holiday can communicate a greater, deeper grace that the expectations of this holiday can only hope to symbolize and make more accessible.

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Go to Daily Doses of Hope to access journaling, spiritual exercises and sacred lyrics that accompany this reflection. There is a Daily Dose of Hope for each day of Advent 2007.

Friday, December 7, 2007

LOOKING FORWARD
Advent 2007 / Daily Doses of Hope - #6

"Now faith is being sure of what we HOPE for and certain of what we do not see." - Hebrews 11:1

HOPE BEFORE FAITH. Before faith, there is hope. At least, that's how I'm reading Hebrews 11 today. Usually called the "Hall of Faith," Hebrews 11 names people and situations in which faith was exercised in response to God's Word and God's promises without ever seeing the fulfillment of the promise. But before there is the act of faith and a life of faith, there is hope. Hope happens before faith is engaged. Faith is the response of certainty to the hope that is presented to us.

FAITH & HOPE INSEPARABLE. Faith and hope are inseparably related, but notice the nature of their relationship. If faith is the daring response, hope is the shining promise of a meaningful future. If faith is the choice to leave the past behind, hope is the compelling vision that gives one a sense that doing so will be worth the effort. If faith is the action of going doggedly forward through an apparent desert, hope is the Word-based scenario that is fixed in the heart even if it cannot be seen with the eye.

SPURRED ON BY HOPE. All of the people and situations listed as examples to us in Hebrews 11 are not only examples of faith, they are examples of the power of hope and the promise of a fulfilling future. So, we could just as readily call Hebrews 11 the "Hall of Hope." They lived by faith, but their faith was spurred on by hope. They saw something that moved them beyond themselves and sometimes beyond "reason." They sensed something others around them did not or could not sense. They did not see with their physical eyes, they saw and sensed the future with spiritual eyes. They received and acted upon "insight."

THE CHOICE FOR HOPE. All of these people had choices to make, not just at the point of receiving a promise from God, but also at points all along their life's journey. The options to turn back or settle and compromise were always available. But they consistently chose to put the weight of their lives and the lives of their families onto an unseen promise. And, with faith in that promise, they moved forward. They chose to look forward. So do I!

WE ARE BEING CHANGED AS WE HOPE. Two quick further observations: (1) People who have hope grow as they move forward--even if they do not "achieve" or receive that on which they set their hearts. Abraham did not see a nation develop through him, as God promised. But by acting upon hope, Abraham grew in godliness and is lifted up as the example of faith. As he responded to hope with faith, hope changed him. To a great extent, we are being formed by what we set our hearts upon. You and I are being shaped by hope. As we embrace them, faith and hope change us now!

OTHERS' HOPE CHANGES US. (2) We have hope, faith and life because somebody before us believed God's promises (had hope) and acted on them (exercised faith). Likewise, there will be people who will have hope because of the hope, faith, and life we have lived and shared. It's worth being faithful!


Photo: the baptistery of the sanctuary at West Morris Street Free Methodist church holds the manger during this year's Advent observance.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

GRAND EVERGREENS IN EAGLE CREEK

















There is a long row of 30-foot tall evergreen trees not far from the 71st Street entrance to Eagle Creek Park. In the summer, they provide welcome shade in the heat for runners and cyclists. They remain green when all other trees drop their foliage. A winter snow, like the one we had early Tuesday morning, leaves these towering trees looking all the more stately. I do not know if these trees are a variety of spruce or pine, but they are grand.